By Joel Kotkin
There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific
dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited
The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines.
What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit.
Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the dawn of a new civilization” with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But instead we are lurching towards what Taichi Sakaiya has called “a high-tech middle ages.” In his landmark 1973 work, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell predicted that, by handing ultimate economic and cultural power to a small number of technologists and financiers the opportunity to monetize every aspect of human behavior and emotion, we would be handing them the chance to fulfill “a social alchemist’s dream: the dream of ordering mass society.”
The New Aristocracy
Like the barbarian princes who seized control of western Europe after the fall of Rome, the oligarchs have captured the digital landscape from the old industrial corporations and have proceeded to concentrate it in ever-fewer hands. Like the Medieval aristocracy, the ruling tech oligarchy—epitomized by firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—have never produced a single coherent political manifesto laying out the technocratic vision of the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a sense of what the internet elite believe and, more tellingly, to see the outlines of the world they want to create.
This tiny sliver of humanity, with their relatively small cadre of financiers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers, now control the exploitation of our personal data, what Alibaba founder, Jack Ma calls the “electricity of the 21st century.” Their “super platforms,” as one analyst noted, “now operate as “digital gatekeepers” lording over “e-monopsonies” that control enormous parts of the economy. Their growing power, notes a recent World Bank Study, is built on “natural monopolies” that adhere to web-based business, and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.
The rulers of the Valley and its Puget Sound doppelganger now account for eight of the 20 wealthiest people on the planet. Seventy percent of the 56 billionaires under 40 live in the state of California, with 12 in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry, mostly in California, produced 11 new billionaires. The Bay Area has more billionaires on the Forbes 400 list than any metro region other than New York and more millionaires per capita than any other large metropolis.
For an industry once known for competition, the level of concentration is remarkable. Google controls nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of US e-book sales, and, perhaps most importantly, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, control more than 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices, while Microsoft still accounts for more than 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.
The wealth generated by these near-monopolies funds the tech oligarchy’s drive to monopolize existing industries such as entertainment, education, and retail, as well as those of the future, such as autonomous cars, drones, space exploration, and most critically, artificial intelligence. Unless checked, they will have accumulated the power to bring about what could best be seen as a “post-human” future, in which society is dominated by artificial intelligence and those who control it.
What Do the Oligarchs Want?
The oligarchs are creating a “a scientific caste system,” not dissimilar to that outlined in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. Unlike the former masters of the industrial age, they have little use for the labor of middle- and working-class people—they need only their data. Virtually all their human resource emphasis relies on cultivating and retaining a relative handful of tech-savvy operators. “Software,” Bill Gates told Forbes in 2005, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future.”
Perhaps the best insight into the mentality of the tech oligarchy comes from an admirer, researcher Greg Ferenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders. The emerging tech world has little place for upward mobility, he found, except for those in the charmed circle at the top of the tech infrastructure; the middle and working classes become, as in feudal times, increasingly marginal.
This reflects their perception of how society will evolve. Ferenstein notes that most oligarchs believe “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ‘gig work’ and government aid.” Such part-time work has been growing rapidly, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the workforce in the US and Europe, and is expected to grow substantially, adds McKinsey.
Of course, the oligarchs have no more intention of surrendering their power and wealth to the proletariat than the Commissars did after the 1917 revolution in Russia. Instead, they favor providing what Marx once described as a “proletarian alms bag” to subsidize worker housing, and provide welfare benefits to their ever expanding cadre of “gig” economy serfs. The former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare, and many top tech executives—including Mark Zuckerberg, Y combinator founder Sam Altman, and Elon Musk—favor a guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about the “disruption” on a potentially exposed workforce.
Their social vision amounts to what could be called oligarchal socialism, or what the Corbynite Left calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Like the original bolshevist model, technology and science, as suggested by billionaire tech investor Naval Ravikant, would occasion “the breakdown of family structure and religion” while creating the hegemony of a left-wing identity-centered individualism.
Life in a world dominated by these oligarchs would depart from the model of democratic and competitive capitalism that emerged over the last half-century. Rather than hope to achieve upward mobility and the chance to own property, the new generation will be relegated largely to the status of rental serfs. For the next generation, this promises a future not of upward mobility and owned houses, but of rented apartments and social stagnation. Here in California, Facebook is leading the drive to vastly expand this kind of housing, where the serfs and technocoolies can lose themselves in what Google calls “immersive computing.”The poor, most of whom simply want opportunity, will be relegated to permanent dependent status.
The World They Are Creating
To get a preview of the society the oligarchs want to create, the best place to look is where oligarchal domination is most complete. Wired magazine’s Antonio Garcia Martinez has called Silicon Valley “feudalism with better marketing.” In Martinez’s view, the new aristocratic class is an “Inner Party” of venture capitalists and company founders. Well below them is an “Outer Party” of skilled professionals, well paid, but forced to live ordinary middle-class lives due to high housing prices and high taxes. Below them lies the vast population of gig workers, whom Martinez compares to sharecroppers in the South, “…with the serfs responding to a smartphone prompt rather than an overseer’s command.” Further below still lie those who constitute, in Martinez’s phrase, “the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal.”
California, and particularly the Bay Area, already reflects this neo-feudal reality. Adjusted for costs, my adopted home state suffers the overall highest poverty rate in the country, according to the US Census Bureau. Fully one in three welfare recipients in the nation live in California, which is home to barely 12 percent of the country’s population, while a 2017 United Way study showed that close to one in three of the state’s families are barely able to pay their bills. Today, eight million Californians live in poverty, including two million children. Roughly one in five California children lives in deep poverty and nearly half subsist barely above that.
For all its protestations of progressive faith, the Golden State now suffers one of the highest GINI rates—the ratio between the wealthiest and the poorest—among the states. Inequality is growing faster than in almost any state—it now surpasses that of Mexico, and is closer to that of Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras than it is to developed countries like Canada and Norway. There’s even the return of medieval diseases such as Typhus tied to the growing homeless encampments. We could soon even see the return of Bubonic plague, although the mainstream media seems to be ready to blame this, like most ills, on climate change as opposed to failed social policy.
Urban website CityLab has described the tech-rich Bay Area as “a region of segregated innovation,” where the rich wax, the middle-class wanes, and the poor live in increasingly unshakeable poverty. Some 76,000 millionaires and billionaires call Santa Clara and San Mateo counties home. At the other end are the thousands of people who struggle to feed their families and pay their bills each month. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private assistance.
As recently as the 1980s, the San Jose area boasted one of the country’s most egalitarian economies. But in the current boom, cost-adjusted wages for middle class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley actually dropped. Many minorities labor in the service sector in jobs such as security guard, for around $25,000 annually, working for contractors. There’s ever-greater segregation of minority and low income families, workers forced into mobile home parks or sleeping in their cars, as well as some of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. According to the Brookings Institution, in the last decade, increasingly tech-dominated San Francisco has suffered the most rapid growth in inequality while the middle class family heads towards extinction.
Needed: An Alliance of Progressives and Conservatives against the Oligarchy
Americans, enamored of the entrepreneurial spirit, were initially slow to see in the tech oligarchy a threat to the future of the republic. But public skepticism, notably in California, towards the tech lords is growing; many on both sides of the political divide see them much like modern versions of the gilded age mogul, successfully playing the political system to avoid regulation, anti-trust action, and taxes.
Yet overcoming the oligarchs will not be easy. Far more than the old industrial giants, they enjoy unprecedented sway through their manipulation of the information pipelines, as is widely evidenced in de-platforming of largely conservative voices on outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through and their dominance among younger generations is, if anything, more overwhelming. As the Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”
To this influence, they have added control over what is left of the traditional media they have helped to undermine. Often getting bargain basement prices, the oligarchs have been able to buy up prestigious outlets, including the New Republic in 2012, the Washington Post in 2013, the Atlantic in 2017, and Time last year.
In the coming political storm, the oligarchs will also retain some supporters on both the Left and Right, all aided by a huge, growing, and politically hermaphroditic lobbying operation. Some California progressives have backed the oligarchs on privacy and Senator Kamala Harris, one of the leading Democratic contenders, has gained widespread support from the oligarchs. Meanwhile, on the Right, some libertarians at places like the Wall Street Journal and conservative think-tanks, continue to defend the oligarchs as the rightful winners of dogged economic competition.
But these well-placed defenders may not be enough to fend off regulatory assaults, particularly as more people recognize how the world being created by the tech elites offers little promise for the middle class, democracy, or free thought. Rather than the saviors many once saw, the oligarchs now represent a clear and present danger to the most basic foundations of our democracy. Resisting them represents the great imperative of our era.
Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017).