The toxic simplicity of ‘big tech is bad’
The big story in the online media world yesterday was the drama at pre-launch publication The Markup
The Markup had raised more than $23m to launch a site focused on technology’s impact on society. But then this week editor-in-chief Julia Angwin was fired. Five of the site’s seven editorial staff have resigned in protest.
I’m not going to comment on The Markup’s case specifically, but the apparent reason for Angwin’s firing is worth noting. As the New York Times reports
“[The Markup cofounder, Sue] Gardner wanted to change the site’s mission to “one based on advocacy against the tech companies” instead of “producing meaningful data-centered journalism about the impact of technology on society,” Ms. Angwin wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times.”
Gardner disputes that particular characterisation, but it’s worth highlighting because it’s a trap I see too many publications falling into right now. 'Big tech companies are bad’ is the new hotness in tech journalism. After years of falling for utopian hype, tech journalists are making amends by slapping down Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google (but mainly Facebook) at every opportunity.
This isn’t healthy, because while big tech companies certainly do bad things and should be held to account, it’s no good caricaturing them as cartoon baddies. Huge companies do some good things and some bad things, and some things that are good for some people and bad for others. So while swinging an almighty pendulum back in their direction might seem satisfying, it denies the complexity of the world.
Let’s not forget that many of the problems big tech companies contribute to have wider causes. Social media may give oxygen to toxic voices, but the ignorance of politicians, and a 20-year period when too many people gave up engaging with politics and treated racism and sexism like 'solved’ issues, are also major factors.
And 'big tech firms don’t pay enough tax’ is a fair argument, but governments not updating their tax laws to make sense in a time of global businesses is the main reason the problem exists.
Asking giant companies to do anything but minimise their tax burden through all legal means available seems like a hiding to nothing. “I’m sorry, shareholders, our profits suffered because we volunteered to pay more tax” might be good citizenship but it’s also is a good way to see your share price drop. Change the rules around taxation and you might get somewhere.
The world is complicated. Pretending it’s simple leads to simplistic solutions to our problems, solutions that aren’t fit for purpose and might do more harm than good. It’s important to speak out against big tech companies, but to pretend they’re operating in a bubble helps no-one.
In that context, “meaningful data-centered journalism about the impact of technology on society” sounds like a highly worthwhile mission.