Review of Bit Tyrants by Rob Larson. Haymarket Books.
Big Tech is in the news daily. In fact, Big Tech makes the news, is the news, and owns the news. To live in the 3rd decade of the 21st century is to be subsumed by the all-encompassing reality that is Tech, whether as a consumer, customer, employee, beneficiary, victim, or member of the pool of alienated labor in the tech ecosystem. No time in human history has one sector of the economy attempted to recreate society in its own image as does the tech sector today.
As I write this review, 5 companies have a market capitalization in excess of $1 Trillion. Of these, two have exceeded $2 Trillion. 2 more companies are within spitting distance of $1 Trillion. Seven Companies in total, of which six are in the tech sector- Saudi Aramco is the only one that isn’t but, of course, it represents the entire oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and massive public infrastructure and as such isn’t really just a company.
Of the 11 richest people in the world, 8 are from tech. Of these, Jeff Bezos, the richest, can boast of an individual net-worth in the range of $200B.
These numbers are wild and worth belaboring. In the US, The average hourly wage is just under $25. Real wages have stagnated for 5 decades. There are 30 countries with a per capita yearly GDP of under $1,000, including one in the Western Hemisphere- Haiti. Around 2 Billion people live on less than $1 a day. These numbers, too, are wild and worth belaboring.
It is against this backdrop that the excesses of Big Tech have gotten odious enough to spur a literature of condemnation.
Rob Larson’s Bit Tyrants is a welcome addition to this collection.
The seductions of Silicon are no doubt powerful. Untold resources, massive scale, and a series of beautiful-if-anodyne mission statements draw a large swath of talented people. So too does the lure of riches, combined with the Libertarian ethos that prevails in the tech sector.
These seductions, powerful as they are, require a thick cover of rhetoric to control and to render inscrutable. As Larson points out, this rhetoric is as hyperbolic as Big Tech’s depredations are clear.
In Bit Tyrants, Larson unpacks and dismantles the story of 5 large technology companies-Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon. In addition, the author provides a very readable and cogent analysis of the State’s role in the creation of much of the “innovation” falsely attributed to Big Tech and of the increasing pressure Big Tech exacts on the political system.
Larson is clear: The titans of Big Tech are every bit as in control of the “infrastructure” on which we all depend as were the railroad and steel barons of old. He rightly laments the concentration of resources and the concomitant control over each of our lives that we’ve unconsciously ceded to Big Tech. In a telling pre-script, Larson reveals the obvious irony- even to produce this book, he had to rely constantly on the products and services of the very institutions of capitalism he critically analyzes.
The subtitle of Bit Tyrants is “The Political Economy of Silicon Valley.” Ultimately the book is very much about Big Tech as a clear expression of late capitalism run amok. Justifying predatory behavior as simple and natural expressions of “natural monopolies, “these companies “work” precisely because they are giants. No doubt, they all offer incredibly useful products and services, but the reality is that we have no real choice in the matter.
We are one month away from the most important Presidential election in the United States’ history. Will the slouch to fascism continue or will the country moderate itself? It seems strange, then, to detain oneself reading about Big Tech. In reality, however, we know that one of the most powerful companies ever to exist—Facebook- appears to have practically conspired to support Trump. Learning to decode Big Tech is necessary, a basic act of citizenship in a world awash in technology.
Reading Bit Tyrants is an important step in acquiring this skill.
Romi Mahajan is an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist