What Is Big Tech?
As I was preparing notes for this post last week, I began to notice how often the phrases 'Big Tech' and 'Tech Giants' appear online. Without actively searching these terms, I came across following quotes within just a short period one evening:
An alternative to Big Tech's video platforms - https://joinpeertube.org/
At least 80 FBI agents collaborated with Twitter to help monitor the social media site. How many more were working with other Big Tech companies? - Jim Jordan on Twitter
Big Tech wants to see you naked. - https://tutanota.com/big-tech-alternative
Inventor of the world wide web wants us to reclaim our data from tech giants - CNN article about Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the Internet
So what do we mean when we use the phrase Big Tech? Big Tech describes a handful of companies that manage and often store most of our digital and networked interactions, either through their software platforms and/or networked hardware devices. The centralised nature of these organisations makes them eerily reminiscent of Orwell's Big Brother in terms of their relationship to the masses, though these are corporations, not government bodies.
There are only a few companies that fall under the descriptor Big Tech. Sometimes also referred to as The Big Five Tech Giants, they are:
- Amazon - purchasing, cloud storage/servers, books, Internet-connected home devices
- Meta - Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, possibly a future 'Metaverse', advertising
- Google (or parent company Alphabet) - just about everything, from search engines to browsers, digital creation and collaboration to cloud storage, video calls, Android, Internet-of-Things devices, developments in artificial intelligence, and advertising
- Microsoft - hardware devices, desktop computing, office software, browser/search engine, gaming, servers
- Apple - devices (laptops, phones, tablets), operating systems, messenger app
The software created by some of these companies is free, well-designed and user-friendly. The trade-off here is that the user is actually not the customer but the product. The data we put into the platform (map searches, email, documents, images, videos, tags, contacts lists) is valuable to them. Companies like Google provide excellent tools like Gmail and Google Drive for free, but any data entered into these systems is not ephemeral, nor private. The user data can be stored, analysed and monetised. A company like Google will either sell this data on to other advertisers, or use it to create targeted advertising aimed at the user.
I have read news articles and watched documentaries that strongly suggest this kind of user-profiling and data sale via social media platforms like Facebook can be used for more sinister purposes, such as targeted propaganda and voter manipulation.1 Facebook, now Meta, has just this week settled the court case around data sharing with third party company Cambridge Analytica, for example.2
In the case of companies that focus on hardware, the consumer is the customer. However, the fact that these companies have a monopoly for their respective markets allows them sell the devices with their choice of software applications pre-installed. A Windows desktop computer will constantly push the user towards making Microsoft Edge the default browser (I know from experience), and an Android smartphone manipulates new owners to sign in with a Google account, while making some version of Google's Chrome browser and search engine the default browsing apps.
In his 2019 book Digital Minimalism, Computer Science professor Cal Newport discusses the business model companies such as Facebook/Meta use. Newport explains that a Facebook will focus all of its efforts on something called attention engineering. (217) Simply put, the single goal of a social media platform like Facebook is to keep users engaged as long as possible every day, and to constantly keep the user coming back for more. This is partly achieved through a quirk in our nature where we find unpredictable outcomes with some positive returns more compelling than predictable ones, to the point of addiction. The 'like' button on Instagram is a good example of this. After posting a picture, you can never tell how popular the new post will be, and this unpredictability is what keeps us coming back.
Another strategy for achieving daily repeated engagement, according to Newport, is to manipulate us into accepting platforms like Google and Facebook as a foundational technologies, similar to electricity or water. (218) You may remember a time when logging into third party platforms with your Facebook or Google account became the norm; this is just one example of the deliberate attempts to make Facebook seem broadly necessary to our daily experiences. When shopping for a new bedside lamp, we no longer bother exploring a range of online stores; we shop on Amazon. We don't search; we 'Google'.
The problem with Big Tech's ubiquity became concrete for me when I tried to explore alternatives. I was surprised to discover that this was really difficult. If Android is owned by Google, and iOS by Apple, then what other options are there? If I decide I don't want to use Windows or macOS as my desktop operating system, then what should I do? If I want to leave Amazon but keep the eBooks I paid for, how do I do that? (I paid for those books, didn't I?) If I want to keep in touch with friends and family, but don't want to use Facebook or WhatsApp, what alternatives are there, and how do I persuade all of them to join me, rather than me join all of them? If I don't want to use Microsoft Word or Google Docs, what alternatives are there for text editing? And if I want to stop using Gmail, what are my options, and how can I evaluate them? Whether deliberate or not, once I began looking for alternatives, it was uncanny how many obstacles and difficulties I encountered. The easiest route always seemed to be to just return to the fold of Big Tech.
The digital privacy movement is a response to the question: what alternatives are available to me? How can I explore these without making mistakes, wasting money, breaking devices, or opening myself up to security vulnerabilities?
Towards the end of his book, Cal Newport writes about the attention resistance movement, and digital minimalism. One way we can take back control, for example, is to stop accessing social media on our smartphones and use desktop and browser in a more deliberate way, since these companies are focusing a lot more effort on getting us hooked on our handheld devices. which he at one point refers to as "these always-on, interactive billboards."(246)
Thankfully, these movements are gaining momentum, are establishing a language and jargon of their own, and already have some great teachers.
The Wikipedia page on Big Tech is a good starting point for further reading.
Sam Harris' interview with Cal Newport (Episode 304 'Why I Left Twitter') about social media was fascinating to listen to.
Cal, Newport. Digital Minimalism. Random House USA, 2019.
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The Great Hack (Karim Aimer, 2019) is an example of a documentary that explores how social media might have been used to influence voting.↩
"Facebook parent Meta to settle Cambridge Analytica scandal case for $725 million", Reuters, 23 December 2022.↩