Of the 10 wealthiest men and women in America, 8 of them made their money in the tech industry. Of these, only 3 made their fortunes from companies that predated the internet era. The rest made it the ‘new-fashioned’ way, by developing and deploying internet platforms.
The great disruption of the internet made college dropouts into the wealthiest men in America, made the West Coast, for the first time, the equal of the East, and transformed the economy from manufacturing tangible items to reselling access to data and outsourcing manufacturing.
The men of the great disruption were libertarians, if not necessarily by politics then by cultural inclination. The original disrupters had been engineers and hackers who didn’t fit into conformist environments like IBM and were chasing the dream of doing their own thing. They set up shop in garages and basements, in small California, Oregon, and Washington towns, and a few cities, dressed casually, watched Star Trek, dreamed utopian ideals, and were bad at business.
The new disrupters were less interested in hardware or software applications than in using the power of the network to suck up the data of our interactions and turn it into a service. Their insights, building a search engine around link popularity, or a college face book by grabbing pictures of women, might be trivial, but were part of an emergent vision of the new data order.
The original disruptors had been concerned with empowering the end user to command the system, but the new disrupters were reversing the process that had taken users from terminals to personal computers, instead reducing a multitude of devices to terminals leaking data that made them easier to profitably manipulate. The early internet was empowering, but the internet of the Google, Amazon, and Facebook era is disempowering by design. It works by limiting your options and then using what it knows about you to push you in the direction it wants you to go.
Early computers had practically demanded programming skills. The new setup programs you.
As companies went public and college kids became billionaires, they stopped being disrupters and became concerned with maintaining the new order that they were building.
Every revolution ends with a pledge to make sure that no other revolution will happen again.
Google, whose empire was built on search because Yahoo, Netscape, Microsoft, and an array of other companies that allowed it to disrupt its way to power had failed to account for the importance of search, has spent a generation working its way from inside out, by building a browser and then an OS and devices, so that no upstart can do to it what it did to the industry.
The Google vision of its devices running its operating systems with its browser and search boxes built in is not disruptive: it’s the creation of a monopoly built to prevent another Google. Search, the core of Google’s business, is its worst maintained because having monopolized it, its focus is on expanding its hegemony outward to the farthest limits of the data economy.
The same is true of other Big Tech titans who exploited a niche, disrupted the existing setup, and then transformed their companies into the very thing they had been struggling against.
The Big Tech challenge was to manage the essential disruptiveness of the industry, stabilizing their power base, while finding other vulnerable points in the country to disrupt. And when there were fewer economic vulnerabilities to disrupt, they turned to the cultural and the political ones.
Like every past ruling class, the new one set out to remake the country in its own image by disrupting other sectors of society, some, such as politics, consciously, while others, such as culture, unconsciously, out of noblesse oblige, lust for power, and a sense of insecurity.
Every previous national transformation had come from ever narrower areas of the country and the great disruption had been the narrowest yet. The old visionary ideas of computer literacy, long since an outdated term, had given way to ‘learn to code’ as an obsolescence taunt. Most Americans would not be included in the revolution, not because they couldn’t be, but because the revolution was far too small to encompass more than a fraction of the population.
The economic momentum of the new disrupters was built on stock booms that were powered by the conviction of investors that these new titans would keep on growing until they took it all over. If investors thought otherwise, there would be 5 or 8 other wealthiest men in the United States. The vast frontiers of the computer revolution had passed through the range war stage and were gated off by giant monopolies using investor cash to strangle each other and their industry.
Compared to the challenge of disrupting the old economy, disrupting politics appeared simple, but the problem was that, unlike computers, the disrupters were also the thing they were disrupting. Society had no artificially neat separations between man and machine, code and flesh, and the disrupters were amplifying a cycle of disruption that was also disrupting them.
Big Tech had worked to exercise political power to stave off the very reaction it was inciting.
The disrupters turned leftward because from the commanding heights of the economy they tended to see society as a machine that was broken and needed fixing. Having few political ideas of their own, they adopted the leftist politics of their surrounding environment. Its reduction of society to a machine and men as moving parts in need of balancing out appealed to them.
The old disrupters had seen men and women on their own terms, struggling to reach their dreams, but that perspective, from the ground level of the world, had been lost to them.
The new disrupters could only envision their kind of world, diverse, urban, and with a mostly useless population whose grievances and inability to contribute to the new world order would have to be met with welfare checks and patient lessons on the dangers of intolerance.
And, most of all, control.
The original computer revolution had been built on freedom, but the titanic internet platforms depended on control. The control was meant to be unseen. The user would be manipulated into thinking it was his idea to click on that link, watch that show, search for that keyword, and buy that product by a series of invisible constraints and prompts to maintain the illusion of control.
The illusion of control, the myth of user agency, was at the heart of the new internet of platforms. The end user had never had less control over his virtual environment, even as it assured him that he could do anything he wanted. Once the user rebelled against the algorithm, the illusion of freedom collapsed leaving a choice between obedience or loss of access.
The system seemed to work as Big Tech amassed vast amounts of wealth and power, but on a social level, it was a disaster, albeit one that was invisible to the manipulators. In the tech industry, the engineers often don’t understand the end users. And vice versa. And the old conflict over system design was now playing out on the vast scale of human civilization.
The disrupters had broken the economy and the social system, and began trying to put it back together on their terms, buying up the media and elections, censoring the platforms they had built, bringing to an end the last of the open information frontier, and building a new order oriented around the technocratic imperatives of managing a global society. But the more they tried to control the human element, the more the societies began to fall apart and turn on them.
Greater control did not lead to greater trust, but an almost incoherent mistrust in which conspiracy theories became the one thing that everyone was coming to believe. The theories were mostly wrong, but in their own inchoate way, they were right because there was a loss of freedoms, because most of what the media broadcast was a lie, and there was an agenda, and though many of the conclusions were wrong, they were reacting to a real loss of agency.
Conspiracy theories thrive when people lose control over their lives, but can’t localize the blame. Big Tech built the conspiracy theories that it keeps trying to rein in by conspiring to control the public without understanding, as most tyrannies don’t, that it is the cause of its own problems.
The disrupters envision a society of useless people with few functions except binging Netflix originals and commenting on photos on Facebook to be subsidized with welfare checks so they can pay their subscription fees, click on ads, and buy Chinese junk from Amazon. But a welfare state is a signal that there is no future and it’s time to fight over the scraps that can be seized.
There’s no better formula for racial tensions, street violence, and bitter multicultural infighting than the combination of a welfare state and diversity. American diversity worked to the extent that there was upward mobility. When social mobility stalled, as it occasionally did in cities, brutal violence soon followed by people who had nowhere to go and nothing to live for.
The disrupters had wanted to find a middle ground short of full Marxism, but instead they were propelling the conditions for both leftist radicalism and a rightward reaction, while striving to hold on to their power and remake the world along the lines that they thought were best.
Their disruption of politics, childishly simple for men and women with enormous wealth and data insights, who could find a dozen ways to hack a system, didn’t move the country their way, but oscillated it back and forth between the extremes that were breaking it. Trying to control the country, they were crashing it instead, because organic life reacts, instead of waiting for input.
Unlike computers, organic life isn’t passive. And people are the least passive of all creatures.
The men and women who had been disrupters wanted a predictable world they could control, but were instead bringing into being an uncontrollable world that was reacting to their efforts, as society often does, the way that a body’s immune system reacts to a viral infection. Society was responding to Big Tech’s efforts at control by raising the temperature to kill the controlling virus.
And in the process it was wreaking the kind of havoc on society that a fever wreaks on the body.
The great disruption had interconnected the world in unprecedented ways. This vast interconnection had made the world more efficient in some ways, at the expense of becoming more interdependent and more vulnerable to disruptions. The internet had been built, in its earliest days, to allow the command and control functions of the military to survive a nuclear war. But the extension of the internet into everything made society less likely to survive.
What had been a means to an end had become its own end. Being online had become its own purpose. Big Tech companies existed to furnish that world with convenient services. The old hacker dream of a digital polis had become real and in its realization had killed the dream. A wired society wasn’t utopia, but a dystopia throbbing with the raw nerves of a lost frontier.
The disrupter elite were the first to leave their own digital prison, keeping their kids away from the services that had made them billionaires, and trying to disconnect from their connections. They took up eastern philosophies, hiked, bought homes in the woods in different states, and tried to get in touch with something real only to find that they carried the unreality inside.
Power is a practical and a philosophical problem. The old disrupters had mastered machines and then come to think of the world as a big machine. The new disrupters had layered machiavellian interfaces over that old heresy, making a collectivist machine with a human face. But the human face was stuck in the uncanny valley, both real and unreal, and so were they.
The new disrupters had reduced all of society to interfaces, external visual inputs that had originally been meant to allow the user to manipulate the world within the machine, but that had been reversed and were being used by the machine to manipulate the user. And in doing so, they had made the world an unreal place and raised generations of users to feel manipulated by an illusory world, lashing out with the one thing that no machine could cope with, unreason.
The great disruption of machines was meeting at last the great disruption of man. And society was shattering in the collision between the real and the unreal. It is no coincidence that the acolytes of the disrupters have adopted science as their slogan. They often claim to follow the science or the data, as if these were oracles instead of ideas only as valid as their proofs.
Human beings need to believe in things and commit to things, in order to feel real. And the men and women who built an unreal world had come to believe in that world as its own moral order. The world of the disrupters is not a world of science, no more than a warlord with a gun is an engineer because his power comes from a mechanical device, but it is a faith in the source of their power. And that power is disruption. It can in the end, like a gun, only disrupt.
The unreal disrupters of the real strive for control, but their control is, like everything about the unreal world they made, an illusion. They can disrupt what is real, but like all the disrupters of ideas who came before them, all that they replace it with is an unreality that does not stand. The revolutions collapse and what comes after them is not the future, but the return of the past.