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‘Forget about Elon Musk’: How to save the world from Big Tech

In an openDemocracy live discussion, Shoshana Zuboff and Susie Alegre warned that, left unchecked, Big Tech can ‘change the tides of society’

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James Battershill
29 April 2022, 2.47pm

Elon Musk this week reached a deal to buy Twitter for $44bn


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“Our job is to work politically… Forget about getting Elon Musk or any other guy to do something better rather than worse. Turn to your lawmakers... Because the failure here is a failure of law.”

This was the argument put forward by American author and academic Shoshana Zuboff in a live discussion, ‘Can we stop Big Tech getting inside our heads?’, hosted by openDemocracy last night.

Zuboff said we should focus not on trying to convince a few powerful individuals to better curate the platforms they own, but on addressing the broader power they have over society – and holding them accountable.

She explained: “We do not have the rights and the laws and the institutions to assure that these information spaces are used in ways that advance democracy and democratic ideals and human-to-human communications in ways that are tied to our rights and our choices.”

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Using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example, Zuboff, the author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, said we are witnessing the presence of a “new power”.

“Old power has various subspecies; totalitarianism, authoritarianism, autocracy, all somewhat different political structures that have consequences. New power is what I call ‘instrumentarian power’... They do not show up at our homes banging on the doors in the dead of night to drag us to the Gulag or the camp. They do not point a gun at our temples and threaten our families.”

Instead, she said, “they work through what is euphemistically called targeting… from supposedly simple recommendations to psychological micro-targeting, to real-time rewards and punishments. They work on us in ways that are unseen. And yet, they are extremely powerful.

“[Big Tech] can be responsible for literally changing the tides of society, who wins, who loses, who lives, who dies.”

Zuboff’s co-panellist at the event, Susie Alegre, the author of ‘Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate Or Minds’, expanded upon how Big Tech uses our data against us.

“[It] isn't so much about, ‘you bought a fridge’, but more about ‘well, you're clearly feeling very distressed about something right now. You're not sleeping at night. You're our kind of target audience and maybe if we feed you this information, it'll make you go out and protest’.”

You can watch a recorded version of the live discussion here.

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