In Rana Foroohar’s new book, Don't Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles — and All of Us, she describes a moment of existential and career uncertainty precipitated by the 2008 financial crisis. Journalism, like many industries, was hit hard, and like many journalists at the time (and since then), Foroohar was tempted by a more secure, and one assumes high-paying, communications job at a rising tech giant. At her interview at Google’s sprawling Chelsea Market “campus,” she was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and introduced to the over-the-top cafeteria, a new twist on an old notion of corporate perks intended to blur the line between lifestyle and work.
She didn’t take the job, although Google must surely wish she had. Instead, over the next decade, Foroohar became one of the world’s most thoughtful voices on Silicon Valley’s role in reshaping the economy and society. Her reporting on rising tech giants for Time magazine and The Financial Times (among others) was situated within the context of broader shifts in the global economy. Unlike many other analysts at the time, Foroohar wasn’t writing for concerned academics or digital activists but for a much wider audience; her columns acted as a word of caution to consumers enticed by the products (and returns) being sold to them from Palo Alto.
Building on this reporting, Don’t Be Evil considers the business models that allowed Silicon Valley to become “the new Wall Street” and describes an industry run amok: companies driven by the need for growth, negligent of the negative externalities of their business models and unencumbered by sufficient oversight. The book provides important documentation of natural monopolies, declining innovation and increasing concentrations of corporate wealth in the technology sector.
But it is Foroohar’s personal evolution on this topic that I find most revealing; the arc she followed will be all too familiar to many scholars, journalists and policy makers who work broadly in the space of technology and democracy. The evolution begins with enthusiasm for the power of digital technology to transform society. For many, this meant reporting or studying the ways in which technologies were empowering more diverse voices, groups and political movements in new and exciting ways. While there were thoughtful critics and scholars seeking to contextualize this enthusiasm, there is no doubt that the techno-utopian ideals being sold, and in many cases implemented, by Silicon Valley were contagious.
This enthusiasm quickly evolved into a feeling of discomfort with not only the culture of the companies underpinning these technological and societal shifts but also the business models emerging to drive their growth. For some, that discomfort became profound alarm as a small number of global, privately owned companies came to occupy and facilitate the public sphere, democratic processes and civic participation.
For Foroohar — and others working in the space — becoming a critic of an economic and political system that still held widespread popular and government support meant re-engaging with and building on the work of a generation of critical scholars and journalists who had been documenting and studying these transformations for decades. It meant stepping into the uncomfortable space of criticism and out of the more conciliatory space of constructive engagement. And it came with some very aggressive resistance from those within the industry who were offended by — and, in many cases, who denied — valid critique and public concern.
But then something remarkable happened. In part due to the use of technology in the 2016 US presidential election, critical voices (Foroohar’s included) began to break through. The public started to consider the potential harms of some of the technologies they had embraced, and policy makers around the world started to think through how they could mitigate the social, economic and political costs of a tech sector they had left unchecked for too long.
If this sounds personal, it’s because it is. Over the past five years, I have lived this arc; this anxiety about shifting from the comfort of academic examination to a more precarious critical voice, to a role of policy activism on an issue I fundamentally believe will shape our lives. And I am relieved that we are now, finally, in a new phase of this conversation. I think the public and policy makers alike have an opportunity to reflect on and discuss how we want to live with, participate in and govern the technologies that increasingly shape our world.
David Skok and I developed this podcast to have precisely that conversation. And there is no one better suited to have the first word than Rana Foroohar. She embodies the type of thoughtful conversations we hope to have about technology and the growing impact it is having on our economy, our democracy and our society.