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Dossier / Should we Be Afraid of the Digital Revolution ?

Big Tech’s Rise to Political Power
An interview with Allison Stanger

by Jules Naudet , 9 June 2022
with the support of CASBS

Technological change has outstripped existing law, creating a governance vacuum. The pressing need towards a renewal of regulations will likely lead to closed autonomous systems and further increase the fragmentation of the world order.

This publication is part of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The full list of our joint publications is available here.

Allison Stanger is the Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College, and an external professor and member of the Science Board at the Santa Fe Institute. She is the author of Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump (Yale University Press, 2019) and One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2009). She is the co-editor (with W. Brian Arthur and Eric Beinhocker) of Complexity Economics (SFI Press, 2020). She received her PhD in political science from Harvard University, where she spent academic year 2019-20 as technology and human values senior fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She was a co-author of the center’s Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience and is a senior advisor to the Hannah Arendt Humanities Network. Stanger was the Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History at the Library of Congress and a CASBS fellow in 2020-21.

As a research affiliate at CASBS, Allison Stanger works on a book tentatively titled Who Elected Big Tech? She also co-leads along with James Guszcza the Theory of AI Practice Initiative. A general theme in her work is the impact of technological innovation on democracy’s sustainability and the blinders that our existing theoretical paradigms for thinking about global markets and national governance may have imposed on what we see and value.

Books & Ideas: The continuing flow of technological innovations in the aftermath of the Internet revolution has progressively transformed the way we navigate the world today. From high-speed traveling information to over-abundance of content, from cookies to perpetual behavioral monitoring, from on-line banking to bitcoins, from on-line work to prospects of an all-encompassing virtual reality world, it seems that the frames and structures of the world we live in today are undergoing radical transformations. How would you characterize this specific moment of history we are in?

Allison Stanger: We are in a multi-dimensional transitional moment. In our global economy, we are witnessing a changing balance of power between national governments and multinational corporations. In the free world, power has shifted from government to Big Tech.

There is growing awareness in both the scientific community and public at large that technology is delivering unprecedented opportunities while simultaneously undermining privacy, equity, and democratic values. Less well known is that an unprecedented shift in the balance of power between multinational industry and national governments has been a necessary condition for these new challenges. How else could a freely elected American president be silenced by Google, Twitter, and Facebook? How else could Facebook’s Instagram be exposed as knowingly causing harm to teenagers without government penalty? In our daily lives, we are moving from a reliance on the Internet, otherwise known as Web2, to the Metaverse, a Web3 world. Cryptocurrencies backed by blockchains are a primary architecture in this emerging universe. We can only see dimly now where that will lead. The best way to think about it is to realize that value creation follows from the applications that are built for each world. Just as Facebook rose to prominence by building on the Internet, some new company is going to rock our world by building on blockchains.

Books & Ideas: Structural anthropology has classically posited the hypothesis of a homology or a correspondence between, on the one side, the physical built-in world in which we live and, on the other side, the layout of social groups and the ‘forms of classification’ through which we view ourselves and the world. Would you go as far as extending this analogy to the architectural design of our digital structures? To what extent would you say computer systems, the internet, social media, smartphones, etc. transform the way we make sense of the world we live in and transform the way we try to act within it?

Allison Stanger: It is absolutely the case that technological innovation transforms the way we make sense of our world and interact with it. To take the comparison of Web2 and Web3 drawn in my answer to your first question, these are likely to be two very different worlds. In the first, globalization’s homogenizing force appeared unstoppable. In the second, globalization now may have reached its natural limits, as ordinary people understandably rebel against the seeming meaninglessness of a world with a global culture, opposed by abstract forces from without. It’s not surprising that autocratic China has banned cryptocurrencies, which means that Chinese citizens are unlikely to experience a world in which anyone can start a cryptocurrency and block chain. We are going to see a bifurcation of Web3 into closed systems, such as the way AI is currently deployed in China, and open systems, such as those that will be found in the free world. Hopefully, we have learned that we cannot just allow technology to disrupt our existing world without endeavoring to channel its trajectory in socially constructive ways, as that failure led to adverse consequences in the Web2 world. Instead, we will need to work harder to intervene before negative unintended consequences of technological innovation begin to overwhelm things we value, such as freedom, equality, and liberal democracy.

We should begin to ask questions such as how did America reach the point where Big Tech assumed responsibility for upholding national public order (e.g., in banning Donald Trump from their platforms) when Washington fell short? What consequences for social justice follow from that transfer of power in a global economy of multinational companies and diverse workforces? In the age of AI, the free world faces a moment ripe for political economic theorizing unmatched since the era of democratic and communist revolutions.

Books & Ideas: Does the materiality of the “old” world becomes obsolete as a consequence of our new ways of experiencing the world? How do you address the fears of those who foresee a danger of going all virtual and of becoming alienated from reality?

Allison Stanger: If there is anything that the pandemic has taught educators, it is that there is no substitute for face to face interaction with other human beings. That is how we optimally learn and grow. At the same time, I see tremendous opportunity in hybrid forms of virtual and 3D communication in higher education. In March 2020, for example I was teaching my Politics of Virtual Realities course at Harvard, and my class had to move from an in-person seminar to a Zoom experience overnight. Because we had already established a face to face learning community, that transition was not painful. Had the course been entirely on-line from the start, it would have been an entirely different matter. Soaring sticker prices for college tuition coupled with new technologies for virtual conversation, such as Zoom, have made it clear that higher education in the United States is ripe for disruption. The big winners will be those who can creatively navigate hybrid environments, with some parts of learning taking place asynchronously (such as with taped lectures) and others in real time on Zoom (a virtual environment) and still others a mashup of Zoom and in-class, which was a typical format in my courses this spring, with so many students coming down with COVID, despite being vaccinated and boosted.

Through forced experimentation, we are learning what works and what doesn’t. The one thing that is clear is that the mental health of students worsens when classes go entirely on-line. That’s why I say that creative hybrid approaches of remote and in-person learning are ultimately going to carry the day. But when all that is said and done, there is no virtual substitute, even with the most beautiful photographs and 3-D landscapes, of being out in nature, and experiencing the world through all five of our senses simultaneously. Humans have always found peace in communing with nature and with each other in real time, and I don’t anticipate this changing any time soon.

Books & Ideas: Can you tell us how your research helps understand or navigate the consequences of these transformations? What does it tell us about the impact these changes have on our daily lives?

Allison Stanger: I’m currently writing a book titled WHO ELECTED BIG TECH? It provides a political history of the changing balance of power between three tech giants (Amazon, Facebook, and Google) and government from 2002, the year Facebook went public, to the January 6 insurrection and its immediate aftermath. An epilogue reflects on the terrain in the rearview mirror and on the road ahead. Rather than rehearsing the usual suspects—a miscreant Republican Party, political polarization, social media’s role in fanning conflict’s flames—WHO ELECTED BIG TECH? tells the story of Big Tech’s rise to political power, both from the vantage point of company leadership at Facebook, Google, and Amazon and from selected underrepresented employees in the rank and file of the male-dominated workforce at each company. We need both perspectives to understand how Big Tech saw the light about Donald Trump but not about the work environment of its own employees.

In exploring how we got to the point where business had to step in to do the work of government, the book will show how it is neither size nor monopoly that are the main problem. It is the ad-driven business model that profits from foreign manipulation that undermines democratic stability in treasonous ways, creating an inescapable trade-off between global profit and American security. WHO ELECTED BIG TECH? will zero in on equity and governance, placing the issues in larger geopolitical context and considering their first amendment and equal protection implications. It approaches the question of technology and politics as a problem that must reckon with the age of transnational corporate power and digital authoritarianism.

Despite this reality, Washington is currently trying to reign in Big Tech’s new powers using the tools of an era that no longer exists. Both parties are wearing glasses that need a new prescription. Big Tech is a misnomer, as each of these behemoths is different. Moreover, the second Gilded Age is unlike the first, because Big Tech and its supply chains are global enterprises, in many instances offering free services in exchange for data. Outdated approaches in this context will unwittingly marginalize citizen voice and further damage democracy, both in the public arena and within these companies.

Books & Ideas: Does the fact that big Tech companies and States have access to a sort of panopticon creates a real threat to democracy? Do you see ways in which these new technologies could rather empower citizens and consolidate democracy?

Allison Stanger: The panopticon threat is not what we face in the free world. It does describe the situation in which Russians and the Chinese presently find themselves. In the United States, technological change has simply outstripped existing law, creating a governance vacuum that is not something Big Tech wants. That’s why you see Facebook running ads in news outlets that the Washington elite reads calling for reform of Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act. Yes, in the United States, Facebook is openly lobbying to be regulated! Further, it is the companies that hold the vast majority of Americans’ personal information, not the federal government, despite what some conspiracy theorists on both left and right might suggest. Basically, we have a situation where what we want as consumers (free social media products) has demonstrated itself to be bad for us as citizens (in that those same products manipulate us with data we have voluntarily shared). We can bolster democracy by simply insisting that government do its job and protect free and fair elections from foreign meddling. The situation in Europe is more complex, because as the NSA always likes to say, “the Fourth Amendment does not extend to foreigners.” What that means is that the US Constitution protects the privacy rights of US citizens but not those of Europeans. That’s why EU reforms such as the GDPR are welcome innovations. What I’d like to see is the United States extending the Fourth Amendment to cover citizens of NATO allies as a way of fostering further collaboration in the fight for freedom against autocracy. The invasion of Ukraine has been a tragic occurrence, but the courage of Ukrainians has helped the West to remember what it is that unites us rather than divides us. My hope is that we can sustain that cooperative momentum, because the future of freedom depends on it.

by Jules Naudet, 9 June 2022

To quote this article :

Jules Naudet, « Big Tech’s Rise to Political Power. An interview with Allison Stanger », Books and Ideas , 9 June 2022. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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