“Big Tech increasingly has more influence ideologically, economically and politically than the state.”
As the tech industry grows, its sphere of influence is pushing beyond consumerism into social policy. In her new book, Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future, Lucie Greene explores the future civic roles of Big Tech. As the global director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, Greene is uniquely situated at the intersection of emerging global consumer behaviors, cultural changes and sector innovation. We caught up with her to discuss how Big Tech is transforming society and what this means for modern consumers.
Can you give a quick synopsis of Silicon States?
Silicon States looks at the increasingly huge, concentrated power of Big Tech, which has reached the point where it transcends government as a concept in a lot of ways and increasingly has more influence ideologically, economically and politically than the state.
At the same time, it looks at how the new frontiers for this group are encroaching on the civic space, whether that’s more on the ideological front, like taking us to space or investing in life sciences or co-opting philanthropy, or looking to civic areas as new commercial ventures, from designing cities to reinventing education to building infrastructure to moving into healthcare.
The book looks at the ethical implications and how those might play out, and it also addresses why the promise of this group moving into that space is both exciting and scary—and what that says about how we feel about the state.
Why did this topic speak to you?
I’m a forecaster mainly looking at culture and consumers in relation to innovation—the idea for this book came from a slightly different angle. I’d always looked at these companies in the context of how they were completely transforming the way consumers shopped, consumed media, lived and socialized—so, in much more of a commercial sense.
Then, a few years ago, there seemed to be a wave of events—suddenly Google and Facebook were introducing big, altruistic rhetoric and talking about bringing the internet to emerging markets. And then you also had things like Hyperloop—which was Elon Musk’s original brainchild, then became a sort of separate commercial entity—talking about transforming the way we moved, redrawing the world map, creating new cities.
All of this made me realize that tech’s ambition has not only become much, much bigger but is also moving more into the state space, far beyond the commercial, day-to-day consumer-centered roles of music and entertainment and talking to your friends. I didn’t start off with an opinion, but that idea set me off on a journey to explore what that world might look like if they did move into these bigger, meatier sectors.
Why is this an important issue for consumers?
I think we’re at a real tipping point where people are starting to become aware of just how ambidextrous and concentrated and incredible the power and influence of this group of leaders and companies is.
We saw that particularly brought to light in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which showed not only the degree to which Facebook has become integral to the news cycle and the way people consume information, but also the way in which Mark Zuckerberg was able to sidestep real accountability.
There’s a popular discourse around understanding the full magnitude of tech’s power and influence in a newly critical light. I also think, practically, it’s a really crucial time to raise these kinds of questions because, with the Internet of Things and the Internet of Eyes and Ears, more and more aspects of our day-to-day lives are becoming a sort of commercial entity, recorded and monetized in some form. And that’s only going to continue, which will of course give more and more power to this group, so I think we need to assess how things look now.
In this time of rapid growth in the tech industry, what should Big Tech companies be doing to remain ethical and accountable to their consumers?
That’s a really interesting question because, ultimately, these companies are corporations. They are businesses and profit is their ultimate goal.
That being said, these brands have marketed and positioned themselves in our lives, culturally. So, there’s this moral outrage that we’re experiencing right now with Facebook, which is linked inherently to the soaring, altruistic rhetoric that these companies have used to gain the cultural influence that they now have. Google is “don’t be evil,” Facebook is “connecting the world,” Airbnb is “belong anywhere”—we have all of these slogans that are trying to position these companies in an emotional, branded place in our lives.
The issue is that now you have this public awakening to the implications of artificial intelligence, the potential loss of jobs, the political influence of networks like Twitter and Facebook, the distortion of political debate and the exacerbation of divisions. I think from a reputational standpoint, they need to include or focus on more foresight about the impact of their technologies and their algorithms and whatever platforms they might be developing. It’s a business imperative for them, I believe, in the long term.
There’s been a lot of focus lately on the negative impact of Big Tech. Do you think these concerns are valid?
There are certainly concerning aspects of these technologies—the fact that they are eradicating jobs, or could do that. Many of the new platforms and business models don’t offer protections like employment rights.
But the most concerning thing is that there’s currently not a level of transparency and accountability. I think that consumers now feel a sense of control, because at the moment these tech companies are monitored by shame. With Uber, for example, there was a big outcry when Travis Kalanick joined the Trump economic advisory council and, after he lost a lot of customers, he ultimately withdrew. So there’s a dangerous illusion, I think, that consumers feel as though they still have control, even if governments don’t.
Are there any positive implications of Big Tech’s increasing power that could balance out these concerns?
It’s really easy to become very dystopian about all of this, but in the day to day, there’s a difference between the noise going on in media and what people are doing. The reality is, the reason these companies have become so pervasive is that they are incredibly consumer-centric and they’re consumer-driven. We’re still using Uber, we’re still using Facebook, we’re still using iPhones and, in part, that’s because, professionally and in all aspects of life now, it’s kind of impossible to step out of those situations. They are incredibly convenient, and while people might be offended about Facebook and Google selling advertising, they are using a free service. There is a business model attached to how these companies and services run. They have to monetize somehow.
And there are, of course, really exciting things that this group can contribute. Innovation is coming from not just Silicon Valley but hubs like Shenzhen and Bengaluru now. And they’re creating tremendous efficiencies—from sustainability to bringing down the cost of solar energy. That’s super-exciting. Anyone who’s flown United will be excited about the idea about a new form of public transport! There’s something quite exciting about having the vision to actually do that—to take on a massive innovation in the way that we move around. The same goes for healthcare in the United States—if Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet were able to disrupt healthcare, I think a lot of people would be quite excited.
I think the interesting thing, as I’ve said about a lot of this, is that all of these things are broadly good. It’s how we respond at this point that will ultimately set the direction of their future influence.