The Rise of Techno-authoritarianism

In the behavior of tech companies, the Atlantic’s executive editor warns us about “a clear and coherent ideology that is seldom called out for what it is: authoritarian technocracy. As the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley have matured, this ideology has only grown stronger, more self-righteous, more delusional, and — in the face of rising criticism — more aggrieved.”

The new technocrats are ostentatious in their use of language that appeals to Enlightenment values — reason, progress, freedom — but in fact they are leading an antidemocratic, illiberal movement. Many of them profess unconditional support for free speech, but are vindictive toward those who say things that do not flatter them. They tend to hold eccentric beliefs…. above all, that their power should be unconstrained. The systems they’ve built or are building — to rewire communications, remake human social networks, insinuate artificial intelligence into daily life, and more — impose these beliefs on the population, which is neither consulted nor, usually, meaningfully informed. All this, and they still attempt to perpetuate the absurd myth that they are the swashbuckling underdogs.

The article calls out Marc Andreessen’s Techno-Optimist Manifesto for saying “We believe in adventure… rebelling against the status quo, mapping uncharted territory, conquering dragons, and bringing home the spoils for our community…” (The Atlantic concludes Andreessen’s position “serves only to absolve him and the other Silicon Valley giants of any moral or civic duty to do anything but make new things that will enrich them, without consideration of the social costs, or of history.”)

The article notes that Andreessen “also identifies a list of enemies and ‘zombie ideas’ that he calls upon his followers to defeat, among them ‘institutions’ and ‘tradition.'” But the Atlantic makes a broader critique not just of Andreessen but of other Silicon Valley elites. “The world that they have brought into being over the past two decades is unquestionably a world of reckless social engineering, without consequence for its architects, who foist their own abstract theories and luxury beliefs on all of us…”

None of this happens without the underlying technocratic philosophy of inevitability — that is, the idea that if you can build something new, you must. “In a properly functioning world, I think this should be a project of governments,” [Sam] Altman told my colleague Ross Andersen last year, referring to OpenAI’s attempts to develop artificial general intelligence. But Altman was going to keep building it himself anyway. Or, as Zuckerberg put it to The New Yorker many years ago: “Isn’t it, like, inevitable that there would be a huge social network of people? … If we didn’t do this someone else would have done it.”

The article includes this damning chat log from a 2004 conversation Zuckerberg had with a friend:

Zuckerberg: If you ever need info about anyone at Harvard.
Zuckerberg: Just ask.
Zuckerberg: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
Friend: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuckerberg: People just submitted it.
Zuckerberg: I don’t know why.
Zuckerberg: They “trust me”
Zuckerberg: Dumb fucks.’

But the article also reminds us that in Facebook’s early days, “Zuckerberg listed ‘revolutions’ among his interests.”

The main dangers of authoritarian technocracy are not at this point political, at least not in the traditional sense. Still, a select few already have authoritarian control, more or less, to establish the digital world’s rules and cultural norms, which can be as potent as political power…

[I]n recent years, it has become clear that regulation is needed, not least because the rise of technocracy proves that Silicon Valley’s leaders simply will not act in the public’s best interest. Much should be done to protect children from the hazards of social media, and to break up monopolies and oligopolies that damage society, and more. At the same time, I believe that regulation alone will not be enough to meaningfully address the cultural rot that the new technocrats are spreading…. We do not have to live in the world the new technocrats are designing for us. We do not have to acquiesce to their growing project of dehumanization and data mining. Each of us has agency.

No more “build it because we can.” No more algorithmic feedbags. No more infrastructure designed to make the people less powerful and the powerful more controlling. Every day we vote with our attention; it is precious, and desperately wanted by those who will use it against us for their own profit and political goals. Don’t let them.

The article specifically recommends “challenging existing norms about the use of apps and YouTube in classrooms, the ubiquity of smartphones in adolescent hands, and widespread disregard for individual privacy. People who believe that we all deserve better will need to step up to lead such efforts.”
“Universities should reclaim their proper standing as leaders in developing world-changing technologies for the good of humankind. (Harvard, Stanford, and MIT could invest in creating a consortium for such an effort — their endowments are worth roughly $110 billion combined.)”