Technology has spawned new corporate giants. Their control of society’s digital infrastructure threatens our democracy. What should we do about it?
More on the problem:
The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.
This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.
More on infrastructure:
One of these is control over infrastructure. Infrastructure can mean many things. It can refer to physical infrastructure, like highways and bridges and railroads, or it can be social and economic: the credit that forms the lifeblood of business, for instance, or the housing stock and water supply that provide the foundational necessities for life.
These infrastructural goods and services combine scale with necessity. They are necessities that make possible a wide range of “downstream” uses. This social value in turn depends on the provision of these goods and services at scale to as many people as possible. Where a good or a service is essential and irreplaceable, the user depends on its provider—they are, by definition, in a vulnerable position. So if a firm controls infrastructure, it possesses arbitrary power over all those who rely on the infrastructure.
But infrastructural power can also operate in a more diffused way. Much of the early debate around corporate power revolved around norms of nondiscrimination in serving travelers. The classic example was the innkeeper. The innkeeper is not a monopolist in the sense of massive scale and concentration. And yet, for the traveler in isolation, without other competing providers present, the innkeeper possesses a kind of localized dominance, with the ability to deny or condition service, placing the traveler at the innkeeper’s mercy. Indeed, this understanding of localized power played a major role in the development of public accommodations laws, which aimed to prevent this kind of diffused exclusion through generally applicable requirements of nondiscrimination.
More about transmission, gatekeeping, and scoring of power:
Recently, however, this optimism has begun to unravel. The problems of technology have come into sharper focus. But this has brought difficulties of its own: technological power today operates in distinctive ways that make it both more dangerous and potentially more difficult to contest.
Taming technological power will require changing how we think about technology. It will require moving beyond Panglossian views of technology as neutral, apolitical, or purely virtuous, and seeing it as a form of power. This focus on power highlights the often subtle ways that technology creates relationships of control and domination. It also raises a profound challenge to our modern ethic of technological innovation.
Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.