Technological Development For The Many

A transcript of a talk delivered at the technology breakout session of John McDonnell's State of the Economy conference at Imperial College

To understand the potential benefits and challenges of technological change, we have to critically consider the wider economic and political context in which technological development takes place. Unleashing the emancipatory potential of technology requires challenging the dominant narrative around how technology should be owned and deployed.

This talk was originally delivered at the technology breakout session of John McDonnell’s State of the Economy conference at Imperial College on May 19, 2018. The session was moderated by Peter Dodd MP and also featured talks by Natasha Thomas, Director of Government Relations at Sage, and Francesca Bria, founder of the Decode Project.

What I want to do with my talk today is really push back against some common narratives around technology, as a bit of a counterpoint to the previous speech. I’ll be focusing on Silicon Valley, not just as the geographic region but as a metonym for this pantheon of high-tech companies, mostly in the US, that have gone from tiny startups running out of dorm rooms to occupying key roles in the global economy in recent years. I’m referring to public companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Alphabet formerly known as Google, as well as companies that are still private but have had major impacts on the real world, like Uber, Deliveroo, and Airbnb.

I want to talk about how these companies were able to acquire such massive amounts of wealth and influence in such a short period of time, and what that tells us about the present economic and political landscape. Specifically, I want to talk about two competing explanations. Because when we’re dealing with an industry that feels so shiny and new, most of us can really only understand it in terms of a narrative. Some sort of story that we tell ourselves about the increasing economic dominance of these corporations as well as the space that technology entrepreneurs occupy in our collective imaginations. A story to explain what’s happening and make it seem legitimate.

And this story goes something like this. We’re in the dawn of a new age of innovation, the “second machine age”, where the ability to create wealth is available to more people than ever before. Anyone who learns how to code can start a tech company or at least get a six-figure salary as a software engineer. Technology has levelled the playing field while simultaneously unleashing profound and unprecedented innovation. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen the rise of so many technology startups, able to generate enormous amounts of wealth in record time. And as a result of their hard work and bold visions, they’re able to disrupt entire industries, squeezing out the less efficient competition.

We’ve seen the rise of the gig and sharing economies. Uber and Deliveroo provide today’s working class with the ability to diversify their sources of income, giving them the flexibility needed to pursue their dreams. Airbnb uses technology to enable a more efficient allocation of resources, fostering a new community spirit in the process. We’ve also seen the growth of platforms for digital content like Spotify and Netflix, giving us access to culture in exchange for a low monthly fee.

And we should be celebrating all this. We should embrace the fact that the tech industry has massively boosted productivity. It’s fine that people like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk have accumulated so much wealth—after all, they’ve created a lot of jobs, and they deserve to be rewarded for that. The fact so many of these entrepreneurs are based in the US and white and male is a problem, but we can fix that by encouraging women and minorities to go into STEM and start their own companies. Here in the UK, we need to invest in our own startup ecosystem to rival what’s happening across the pond. We need to improve digital education across the board; we need to fund more startups; and we need to celebrate the figure of the technology entrepreneur. In short, we need to grow the high-tech sector. That’s how you increase social mobility, that’s how you give the nation a pay rise.

Of course, it’s not all positive: we should be concerned with the tech giants, especially over privacy violations, their monopolistic tendencies, and their failure to pay a fair amount of tax. We should be worried about automation destroying jobs. And we should be concerned about the lack of diversity within the tech industry. But still, on the whole, the story of technological development is one of laudable progress, and anyone who questions that is a Luddite who just doesn’t understand.

This is the primary narrative that we’ve been hearing from most of the media and political class for a while now. Of course, as soon as we start to critically assess that narrative, it falls apart. But it’s instructive, I think, to consider where that narrative comes from and whose interest it serves.

And I think the best way to understand the problems with this narrative is to look at who the Luddites actually were. It’s a shame that for many, Luddite has become synonymous with “hatred of technology” because that obscures some important dimensions of what they were actually trying to do. It wasn’t just about destroying machines because they were afraid of them or didn’t understand them. The Luddites understood all too well that the aim behind introducing machines was to disempower the working class, to weaken workers’ ability to reap the rewards of their labour. It was not about technology per se; it was about power.

And I think that insight is key to understanding the story of technology today. We need to look at technological development from a much broader and structural perspective, considering its historical role in a capitalist framework as well as its effects on the relationship between capital and labour. Any perspective that doesn’t take that into account is ultimately misguided, serving to entrench the status quo.

Because here’s the real story about what this new wave of technological innovation is all about. Underlying all the talk about efficiency and making the world a better place, it really comes down to power. Concentrating economic, social, political power among a select few and entrenching that power, in a way that’s consistent with rising inequality and precarity for everyone else. Structurally, technology’s primary role in a capitalist system is to increase returns to capital while at the same time disempowering labour, and we can’t forget it. All this rhetoric around innovation is effectively just a way to mask exploitation, a way to conceal what’s actually happening.

And what’s really going on in tech is similar to what’s been going on elsewhere in the economy. Even though state investment is responsible for quite a lot of technological development in recent years, the prevailing neoliberal consensus means that it is overwhelmingly the private sector that controls, and profits from them. What’s special about tech is the way it has become this sort of collective fantasy, one that benefits a select few at the top. There’s this idea that the tech sector can absorb an infinite amount of surplus capital, that there will be enough successes to make up for all the failures.

And so the money keeps flowing, creating an ecosystem of startups with inflated valuations based on little more than a nice slide deck and some wishful thinking. Founders who look like Mark Zuckerberg can raise millions to fund their derivative ideas for a more efficient way to sell customers’ data. And even if they fail to find a sustainable business model, and end up burning all that cash, they’ll just start a new company. At the same time, multinational tech firms with billions in profits are doing everything they can to avoid paying taxes, and are browbeating cities into giving them further concessions in exchanging for creating jobs. Meanwhile, across most of the advanced economies we’re seeing rising inequality and worsening living standards for most.

These things are all linked—not directly, but as manifestations of deeper problems with how the economy is organised. And if we want to address them, we can’t just double down on technology and hope that some enterprising founder will fix things. The structural incentives of the startup ecosystem mean that the ideas that get funded are, by and large, the ones that have a shot at making a lot of money, most likely at the expense of our collective well-being. We need to take a step back, and critically evaluate the narrative that has gotten us to this point. And we need to change it. Because once you change the narrative, you change what seems feasible. You open up new avenues of possibility.

And what we have to remember is that the very existence of these companies comes down to enclosure of the commons. Only this time it’s not land, it’s a digital commons. Corporations are selling us the right to be connected to the internet, they’re selling us access to cultural goods, they’re selling other corporations the ability to command our attention through advertising. Technology is mediating the slow creep of the private sector into more and more of our lives. At some point we have to ask ourselves if this is really the world if we want, or if we can imagine a better one.

I don’t have all the answers. I think we’re still at the beginnings of a discussion of what a socialist approach to technology should look like. What I do know is that we can’t consider technology in a vacuum, as some sort of natural force disconnected from the larger social context.

The challenges that technological development will present over the coming years are massive, but at the same time, we have an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how the economy should be organised. We have the chance to imagine an entirely different world, one where technology is under democratic control and deployed for public good instead of private profit.

Now this won’t be easy, coming up as it does against deeply ingrained assumptions of our economic system that have been magnified by several decades of neoliberalism. But I believe it’s the only way to ensure that technology serves the many, not the few.

Further reading


Wendy Liu (@dellsystem)

Wendy Liu is the author of Abolish Silicon Valley.