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Four Takes: A boom, a backlash, and a reckoning with Big Tech -The Boston Globe

Shoshana Zuboff is the author of "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism."Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

December 28, 2019

Sing, O Muse, of geeks in garages. Then tell of Big Technology’s fall.

Somewhere an epic tale is taking shape, and it goes something like this: Once, we found ourselves in a garden of information. Facts would set the world free. But too late we discovered that rumor, falsehood, and molten hatred could course along the pathways meant for truth. Age-old human impulses proved as adaptable as cockroaches, and have planted their flag in our new digital utopia.

Heightened by misgivings over the 2016 election, the backlash against Big Technology is now in full swing. The coming year promises new efforts to hold it to account, as Congress considers antitrust action and privacy initiatives, and Americans fret over the misuse of their personal data.

Until our great epic arrives, the growing spate of books on the Internet’s dark side will have to do. In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” Shoshana Zuboff lays important groundwork, conceding that her exhaustive study is just an “initial mapping” of the terrain.

An emerita professor at Harvard Business School, Zuboff began studying the rise of surveillance capitalism (her coinage) in 2006. Today, her alarm is palpable. In her estimation, virtually all of us are now imprisoned in a digital cage. A new, unprecedented form of power has entered the world. Promising greater connection, it concentrates might among a small number of companies. These companies have not naturally advanced the world toward the democratization of knowledge; instead, their formidable power serves commercial ends, through the manipulation of human behavior. Americans caught in this Faustian snare can either be defensive or pretend nothing is happening, but they cannot escape. If Zuboff is right, only a new era of progressive reform can save us.

Like most writers on what Big Tech has wrought, she ponders its prime movers, describing their mind-set as “radical indifference.” In “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” Margaret O’Mara identifies an anti-authoritarian streak among the founders, tracing their mentality to post-Vietnam disillusionment. Her wonderfully accessible history of Big Technology spans 50- plus years, and brings home just how extraordinary the rise of the digital world has been.

As O’Mara notes, the key players combined disdain for authority with an entrepreneurial fervor. Both fell nicely into the political slipstream of the Reagan years. Yet as she also demonstrates, to a large but underappreciated extent, government aided the rise of Silicon Valley. By opening the Internet to commercial activity in the early 1990s, it provided a crucial foothold. As tech companies grew, politicians hung back from intervening, partly because they did not understand what they were regulating.

Big Tech was tightly controlled by a coterie whose heedless, white male ethos masqueraded as the free market. Nevertheless, O’Mara tends to give these titans the benefit of the doubt: Geeks caught up in designing cool stuff could not be expected to reckon with “bad actors” exploiting their creations.

Journalist Noam Cohen suggests, to the contrary, that today’s tech billionaires have simply been masters at letting themselves off the hook. If anything unites them, it is their shared belief in their own benevolence. In “The Know-it-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball,” Cohen presents a digital-age rogue’s gallery.

Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and others figure in a set of interlinked portraits illustrating how Big Tech’s disruptive dream darkened, infecting the world with a libertarian outlook that has been great for winners but destructive for almost everyone else. Amid Cohen’s hard-nosed cast is Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, still evidently resentful toward his upbringing in small-town Wisconsin. Cohen wonders, not altogether facetiously, whether the world is being made to answer for Andreessen’s years of chopping wood and suffering through gym class.

New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz presents the Big Tech players as, primarily, naive optimists. In “Anti-social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” he probes the destructive forces unleashed by their creations.

For years, online social networks have been used to promote a white nationalist agenda. Intrigued, Marantz entered the world of right-wing extremists and returned a changed man. While outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have begun to crack down, their overlords still seek cover in a First-Amendment absolutism.

The most disheartening aspect of Marantz’s journey may be the fierce animosity toward mainstream news organizations he encountered along the way. Thanks partly to algorithms that tap into “high arousal emotions,” we seem locked in an inane contest between “globalist elites” and “the real Americans.” Marantz has turned into a reluctant institutionalist, defending the role of traditional media in what may be an emerging form of conservatism. In the meantime, he and others are creating a vital chronicle of an unprecedented era.

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