In recent weeks and months, a new tone—a political tone—has emerged from Silicon Valley, and people are beginning to wonder about what this means for the future of America’s tech giants, and our society as a whole.
The most recent example of the latest convergence of tech and politics was the revelation that some Facebook employees asked Mark Zuckerberg if they should attempt to derail GOP candidate Donald Trump’s bid for president via their social media platform. This exchange represents one of those bizarre moments (it runs parallel to a major plotline of season 4 of Netflix’s House of Cards, where the presidential candidates illegally gather user data via social media to influence voters) where fiction influences reality.
All signs point to Zuckerberg generally disregarding the request, but this does not mean that the Silicon Valley titan has decided to remain apolitical during this presidential campaign.
Zuckerberg has already expressed his displeasure with Trump’s candidacy, but being a citizen with an opinion does not necessarily make you a statesman. However, being a private citizen with a mountain of cash can provide you with the opportunity to shake up American politics and maybe even become the biggest statesman in the world. The simplicity of Trump’s rise should not be lost on anyone, and especially those with billions of dollars.
However, the political tone emerging from the tech industry is not primarily from employees looking to manipulate the system, but is more indicative of a subtle transition that a handful of the tech giants (mainly Facebook, Google, and Apple) have undertaken due to the size, wealth and reach of all of these companies.
They are all indicative of the increased convergence and growing influence of the tech industry in American politics.
For example, Apple has taken a clear stance on privacy and security in the face of the federal government’s request for them to develop a “backdoor” to access the data of Apple customers. In response Apple refused to comply, and CEO Tim Cook even wrote a letter on Apple’s website stating the company’s commitment to privacy and security.
“Our commitment to protecting your privacy comes from a deep respect for our customers. We know that your trust doesn’t come easy.”
And late last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai penned an open letter in support of Muslim Americans following the inflammatory political rhetoric directed towards them during the presidential race. Pichai ended his note with: “Let’s not let fear defeat our values. We must support Muslim and other minority communities in the U.S. and around the world.”
Additionally, at Facebook’s recent developers conference Zuckerberg gave a keynote address that largely focused on politics and not product development.
“I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as ‘others,’” said Zuckerberg. “It takes courage to choose hope over fear. People will always call you naive, but it’s this hope and optimism that’s behind every important step forward.”
It is hard to find fault with Cook’s, Pichai’s or Zuckerberg’s statements, yet they are all indicative of the increased convergence and growing influence of the tech industry in American politics.
And while the Facebook employees who enquired about derailing Trump’s campaign may hold political sentiments that many Americans—and a large segment of the GOP establishment—agree with, the fact that they believe that they could actually do so should be a cause for alarm.
This potential level of control by a corporation influencing the future of a nation only increases the significance of their CEO’s political statements and positions. Also, it requires us all to look deeper into their intent and corporate structure, so to avoid the naivete of solely relying on the uplifting, inspirational rhetoric of their CEOs.
Alphabet (the parent company of Google) and Apple are the two most valuable companies in the world with both of them having a market value exceeding $500 billion. In comparison, Facebook’s market value of just over $300 billion seems relatively small, but that still makes it one of the 10 most valuable companies in the world sandwiching it between ExxonMobil and General Electric. Facebook has arguably become as valuable to the world as the oil and electricity that power our machines—and it’s still less valuable than Apple or Google.
Facebook has arguably become as valuable to the world as the oil and electricity that power our machines.
When a company reaches the size of these three companies, it makes sense for their CEOs to not behave similarly to your average CEO. Most business leaders are constantly working to ensure that their business stays afloat, but when you are the size of Apple, Google and Facebook the likelihood of going out of business is slim to none. Additionally, when your market value is comparable to the GDP of some of the top 30 national economies in the world, it is only logical that a CEO would appear more like a statesman.
Facebook’s and Google’s revenues come from billions of people using their free services and the money that advertisers pay to place ads on them. Apple, despite being the biggest company in the world, still relies on the nearly antiquated business model of relying on people to pay for their products and services. Apple has to develop new computers, iPhones and services to stay at the top.
Cook’s response to the American government’s request not only demonstrated the strength of Apple as the biggest company in the world, but it also showed how it is dependent on insuring the integrity of its products, so that they can convince customers to repeatedly buy them. Apple is a business in the traditional sense, and their objective is clearly their bottom line and convincing you to buy their products, which is very different that Facebook’s or Google’s business model.
They are not nearly as reliant on the trust of their users because at this point it is almost impossible to find a comparable or better service for what they provide. We all kind of have to use Google or Facebook whether we want to our not.
Facebook and Google are both social applications based around engaging with everyday people on the Internet, but they are also publicly traded companies that intend to generate profits and increase their stock value. The CEOs of Apple, Google and Facebook talk about the greater good and improving humanity, and few would argue against the genuineness of their appeals or even how beneficial Apple, Facebook and Google have been to the world.
But the profit-driven nature of their businesses must make people wonder if these corporate structures are capable of succeeding at implementing this humanist world view. The purpose of corporations is to generate a profit which naturally will prioritize money over people, and the purpose of governments—with their infinite imperfections—is to provide needed services to people to the extent that you value humanity over money.
Facebook, Google and Apple are corporations that are so large and ever-present that maybe they could each represent a “beyond-profit” business that works to improve humanity grounded upon the long-standing stability of perpetual revenue.
We should always be skeptical when a corporation projects a humanist message because usually it is a ploy to make you buy their services. Yet now we need to examine how we should perceive companies who are no longer just concerned about us buying their products and services. They know it’s almost impossible that we will not buy their goods and services.
The world has never previously witnessed a Facebook, a Google or an Apple. And now we might be confronting the era of the Silicon Valley statesman, for better or for worse.
Barrett Holmes Pitner is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and columnist who focuses mostly on race, culture, and politics, but also loves to dabble in sports, entertainment and business. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, National Journal, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @BarrettPitner or visit his website barrettholmespitner.com.