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Big Tech is failing. The future of democracy depends on what happens next

The Musk-Twitter apocalypse is a symptom of a much bigger crisis. To avoid a bleak future we have to bring the big platforms under our control

Jeremy Gilbert Alex Williams
2 December 2022, 5.44pm
Elon Musk's Twitter takeover has been sheer chaos
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Apex MediaWire / Alamy Stock Photo

After Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter for $44bn, many people fear for its survival. The world’s richest man has laid off more than half the social media platform’s total staff, botched the rollout of new features such as ‘Twitter Blue’, leading to a deluge of false ‘verified’ accounts, and allowed numerous banned users back onto the platform.

Yet while the Musk-Twitter apocalypse has been unique in its sheer chaos, the platform is far from alone in being a tech giant exhibiting signs of commercial and organisational failure. Meta Systems Inc, the owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, has laid off 11,000 workers and lost more than 70% of its total market capitalisation over the course of the last few months. Even Amazon and Google, previously stalwarts of the platform economy, have seen significant layoffs and reduced outgoings.

Meanwhile, alleged future revenue streams such as cryptocurrency, blockchain, web 3, VR, AR, and quantum computing have all either crashed or faced significant difficulties in demonstrating their value to potential customers. Big Tech, the leading edge of the global economy for the last 20 years, is looking increasingly in deep trouble. What on earth is going on here?

One possible explanation could be that much of this trouble relate to the overreaching power and incompetence of Big Tech leadership, with Facebook and Twitter in particular appearing to be the playthings of their oligarchical owners rather than well-managed businesses run by professional boards.

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With users disempowered, this set-up is typical of what theorist McKenzie Wark describes as a sort of digital neofeudalism. But there’s more to it than that.

Within the tech world, the most significant development of the past two years has been the collapse of the profit-making model described by Shoshana Zuboff as “surveillance capitalism”. This system, effectively devised by Google in the early 2000s, has seen enormous profits accrue to those platforms able to command large populations of data-generative and attention-possessing users, and even more to those able to efficiently organise a market for targeted advertising.

But as the global economy has entered a period of stagnation and inflation, advertising budgets have been cut, while cynicism grows over the purported efficacy of the targeted ad-tech model. If 2020 to 2021 was the high-point of Big Tech’s dominance, its revenues and valuations bloated by pandemic lockdown profits, then 2022 has marked a rapid decline from this height.

Platforms like Twitter have been revealed as highly-motivated actors possessing enormous economic, political, and editorial power

In the background of all this is the increasingly politically controversial nature of the platforms themselves. If the ideal objective of a platform is to disappear into the background – to seem like an invisible, neutral ground upon which other processes can exist – then the years since 2016 have been ones where the platforms’ invisibility cloaks have fallen into tatters.

Platforms like Twitter have been revealed as highly-motivated actors possessing enormous economic, political, and editorial power. European and US legislators have threatened them with large fines and attempts at regulation, including the potential break-up of monopoly positions for companies like Meta and Amazon.

Our world depends upon these systems, to different extents, as digital infrastructures. Leaving them at the mercy of quixotic owners, or indeed to market dynamics, is unsustainable in the long term.

While the image of a ‘nationalised Facebook’ might be unpleasant and ridiculous, there are more fine-grained options available for the future ownership and control of global digital infrastructures. Technologies such as Decentralised Autonomous Organisations offer potential models for platforms that are owned and controlled by users and workers.

Beyond tech, we are coming to the end of a long period of global neoliberal hegemony – the dominance of a certain set of ideas about how the world should be run. This project established itself in the early 1980s, reached predominance in the 1990s, and has suffered three key blows since its peak of power in the mid 2000s.

The first of these was the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 and the fiscal debt crises that followed. The second was the collapse of political authority that neoliberalism faced in 2016, with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump on a populist anti-globalisation platform, and the re-emergence of the political left on both sides of the Atlantic.

The ability of the neoliberal political class, and of financial and tech elites, to command consent and shape public opinion, has been fatally eroded

Finally, 2022 brings us the relative decline of Big Tech. If the finance and tech sectors were the parts of the capitalist class that most managed to get what they wanted out of neoliberal rule (broadly speaking, immense wealth and power combined with relative social liberalism and free markets backed by state largesse), then this completes the fall of neoliberalism.

The systems and structures built over the last 40 years will of course remain. The structural power of technological and financial networks is not in doubt, even if the relative power of their owners declines. But the ability of the neoliberal political class, and of financial and tech elites, to command consent and shape public opinion, has been fatally eroded.

Their position of extraordinary power has always depended on being able to convince enough of the global population that their interests aligned with those of this techno-financial elite. We have now entered a period of immense change, of interlinked crises that threaten neoliberalism’s dominance.

These range from the climate crisis through to stagflation, from the collapse of the US-centric geopolitical order to the declining authority of the political class. Each of these crises is working to undo the basic mechanisms that have kept global neoliberal hegemony in place for the last 40 years. While neoliberal politicians cannot even deliver house price growth for the middle classes, tech elites are increasingly seen as idiotic man-children bent on destroying digital infrastructure while corroding democratic norms.

The future that emerges from this turmoil, a political and economic settlement offering some form of relative stability that secures the interests of at least some key social groups, seems to be being pulled in two major directions. One is towards a green neosocialism, a collective effort to meet the huge social and environmental challenges coming our way. The other is a bleak fascist populism, perhaps mixed with a revanchist return to neoliberalism as an unstable ‘third way’.

Which future we end up with will depend on what happens politically over the course of the next decade. Big Tech still occupies the commanding heights of our global information infrastructure, and as such its evolution should be of concern to all who want to secure a better future for our planet. Platforms like Twitter are too important to be left to the billionaires – we need to be talking about how to bring them under our control.

Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams are the authors of ‘Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (And How We Win it Back)’, published by Verso Books

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