As a student at Bishop’s University in April 2001, I took a bus from Lennoxville to Quebec City to the protest against the Third Summit of the Americas. Ostensibly, the meeting was one of many rounds of negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, but it, like the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” World Trade Organization protests before it, had become symbolic of the far broader anti-globalization movement. I probably could have given an earnest undergraduate rationale for participating in and “covering” the event, but the reality was that I wanted to be a part of this cultural and political moment.
During the protests, I was caught on a street being cleared by tear gas. Running away from the clouds of smoke, I ducked into a building and, to my surprise, saw a documentary crew interviewing Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis. I watched from a distance and then, I’m sure very awkwardly, introduced myself.
Klein was, of course, at the centre of this political moment. Her first book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, was the manifesto for a global movement against economic and cultural globalization, and it catapulted her into the zeitgeist of global progressive politics — a place she has uniquely occupied for the past two decades.
There are only a handful of Canadians I can think of who have had in my lifetime the type of intellectual and political impact as Klein, and while I don’t agree with all of her politics, I have always followed and admired her work. So, when she recently started writing and speaking out about the harms of big tech, I took notice. In the past few months alone, Klein has written about how tech has positioned itself during the pandemic, how Google and Facebook are aiding India’s Narendra Modi government to crack down on environmental activists, and how New York’s Andrew Cuomo administration is developing post-pandemic deals with big tech and has hosted events on the growing interconnections between surveillance tech and the surveillance state.
I was intrigued with why and how she would apply her ideological world view to a set of problems with which I was intimately engaged. The answer, I think, is that three pillars of her work in particular (on globalization, disaster capitalism and climate change) help us understand and also complicate a set of political and economic issues related to state and corporate use of technology.
First, in No Logo, Klein introduced a marketing strategy to make citizens an extension of corporate branding and, in so doing, revealed the inner workings of a far broader political and economic shift to global supply chain production. The idea of individuals as brands pretty clearly foreshadowed the world of influencers. But, more fundamentally, No Logo expresses concerns about the precarity of work, the costs of outsourcing labour and the risks of market concentration. All of these issues have certainly gotten worse in the era of big tech. The idea of resistance, however, is now more complicated. While it was relatively easy to boycott Coke, McDonald’s or Nike, it is much more difficult to step away from the layers of infrastructure that make up big tech. You could stop using Amazon, but try avoiding websites, services and apps hosted on Amazon Web Services. What’s more, these companies have become global in ways unimaginable to earlier corporate giants, embedding themselves in the social, political and economic lives of billions of users around the world. And the neoliberal ideological framework Klein applies to economic globalization doesn’t, on the surface, fit perfectly with big tech. Silicon Valley rarely talks about neoliberal ideals such as deregulation or free-market fundamentalism, instead replacing these ideas with talk about growth, innovation, and moving fast and breaking things. Perhaps this is neoliberalism in sheep’s clothing, but there is a need for more work on depicting the ideological framework for this current corporate strategy.
Second, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein describes how corporations or governments use disasters as an opportunity to introduce economic policies or structures that will benefit them. There is little doubt that this has occurred throughout the pandemic. The largest tech companies have gained $360 billion in value over the pandemic. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made $3.6 billion in one day last week. Part of this is due, of course, to our lives moving online, and big tech has capitalized on this shift by relying on precarious labour — what Kate Crawford calls “Potemkin AI” and Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri call “ghost work.” As Klein describes, big tech “claims to be run on ‘artificial intelligence’, but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centres, content-moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation.” As such, labour movements are emerging that draw considerably on previous similar political moments.
But at the same time, Klein argues that big tech is also using this moment to solidify its economic position. For example, she details the effort by Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, who still owns more than $5 billion in Google stock, to position American superiority in the face of a rising China being dependent on both the scale of US tech and on increasing support from, and collaboration with, the US national security complex.
Somewhat paradoxically, this pandemic-fuelled turbocharging of tech adoption may actually also speed up the governance of it. While the pandemic has sped up our adoption of digital technology, in so doing, it has also accelerated our understanding of, and collective concern for, its negative externalities. As a result, this evolution has added a level of urgency to the governance conversation that may ultimately lead to a more substantial platform governance agenda.
Third, and here is where I think there is the most work to be done connecting Klein’s ideas to the realities of our modern technology infrastructure: as we grapple with the climate crisis, there is a need for work on the layers of interconnection between big tech and climate change.
On the one hand, social media is an amazing tool for organizing. It’s hard to imagine the school strike for climate, or the wide reach and power of Greta Thunberg, without social media. On the other hand, the fragmentation of the public sphere and the sheer volume of mis- and disinformation about climate change make collective action, in particular in the space of governance, incredibly challenging. There is the paradox of the collective action potential of social media bumping up against its epistemological limitations. We also need to ask to what degree big tech is not only complicating the possibility of global collective action but also contributing to the climate problem. The energy consumption of cryptocurrencies alone is at the level of nation-states. And server farms that power Amazon, Google and Facebook are massive carbon emitters. Finally, as we barrel down a path unmitigated by sufficiently meaningful global policy change, the call for geoengineering is going to get louder. We are on the cusp of a new debate about the role of technology in reshaping not only our politics, culture and economy but also our global ecology.
While big political ideas and ideological frameworks change over time, and many come and go, our understanding of the social, political, economic and environmental consequences of our growing reliance on big tech would benefit from more thought, attention and political activism from Klein.