If Ronald Reagan was the first Teflon President, then Silicon Valley is the first Teflon Industry: no matter how much dirt one throws at it, nothing seems to stick. While “Big Pharma,” “Big Food” and “Big Oil” are derogatory terms used to describe the greediness that reigns supreme in those industries, this is not the case with “Big Data.” This innocent term is never used to refer to the shared agendas of technology companies. What shared agendas? Aren’t these guys simply improving the world, one line of code at a time?
Something odd is going on here. While we understand that the interests of pharmaceutical, food and oil companies naturally diverge from our own, we rarely approach Silicon Valley with the requisite suspicion. Instead, we continue to treat data as if it were a special, magical commodity that could single-handedly defend itself against any evil genius who dares to exploit it.
Earlier this year, a tiny scratch appeared on the rhetorical Teflon of Silicon Valley. The Snowden affair helped – but so did other events. The world seems to have finally realized that “disruption” – the favorite word of the digital elites –describes a rather ugly, painful phenomenon. Thus, university professors are finally complaining about the “disruption” brought on by the massive open online courses (MOOCs); taxi drivers are finally fighting services like Uber; residents of San Francisco are finally bemoaning the “disruption” of monthly rents in a city that has suddenly been invaded by millionaires. And then, of course, there are the crazy, despicable ideas coming from Silicon Valley itself: the latest proposal, floated by one tech executive at a recent conference, is that Silicon Valley should secede from the country and “build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the United States, run by technology.” Let’s share his pain: A country that needs a congressional hearing to fix a web-site is a disgrace to Silicon Valley.
This bubbling discontent is reassuring. It might even help bury some of the myths spun by Silicon Valley. Wouldn’t it be nice if one day, told that Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” we would finally read between the lines and discover its true meaning: “to monetize all of the world’s information and make it universally inaccessible and profitable”? With this act of subversive interpretation, we might eventually hit upon the greatest emancipatory insight of all: Letting Google organize all of the world’s information makes as much sense as letting Halliburton organize all of the world’s oil.