Some stories have come out recently about the new cab company Uber, suggesting that it might be run by scumbags. It has been objectifying its female drivers, blaming passengers for assaults, harassing critical journalists, and generally operating according to a business philosophy that would be best described as Machiavellian. This has resulted in people making a bit of a song and dance about deleting the company’s app. Of course, this thing seems pretty par for the course for tech startups by now. Consider Spotify, which has recently received some criticism from Taylor Smith, and others who allege that the royalties it pays its artists are far too low. Spotify Ceo Daniel Elk issued an unconvincing retort in which he essentially argued that artists shouldn’t complain because they receive more royalties from Spotify than they do from piracy. This kind of stuff is all over the tech sector. From Facebook’s creepy ways of generating revenue, to Amazon’s brutal abuse of its workers, anybody who follows the tech sector knows that this has become normal. This isn’t new, either. Britain’s railway system-a technological marvel at the time it was built-was largely constructed by gangs of “navvies“, who moved heroic amounts of dirt every day on muscle power alone, but were very little and exploited with company stores. In the high-tech world, nice guys finish last.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. I’m enough of an optimist to think that Elon Musk might qualify, and if you want to look a bit further back in history, then maybe so does Henry Ford’s $5 wage, although that’s probably mitigated by Ford’s rampant antisemitism. In general, however, it seems as though he fast-moving world of technological change does not wait for people’s scruples. The people with the fewest moral qualms are going to rise to the top, and, crucially, they get to be the ones who define the future shape of a new technology. Today, the technological future is being shaped by people like Mark Zuckerberg and companies such as Uber. That’s bad news for the rest of us.
But does this have to be the case? Obviously the people most willing to take big risks to change an industry in pursuit of profit are more likely to be bad actors. But there are more motivations to change the world than just profit. There have, in fact, been some big positive changes brought about by what you might call entrepreneur activists: The cooperative movement is one, as is the remarkable recent rise in the consumption of organic food, and some car sharing businesses. If you look closely at these things, they often don’t come off as very high-tech. Sure, there are technological innovations involved, but innovations such as organic agriculture or cooperative ownerhship are more likely to take advantage of technological countercurrents than to be on the cutting edge of new technology. That’s not always a bad thing, of course, especially if the cutting edge is unsustainable. But maybe ethical entrepreneurs are missing out on a big opportunity to change the world.
Imagine, for example, if an alternative to Uber was created, but rather than being run by a ruthless San Francisco Startup, it was created by taxi drivers themselves, as a cooperative enterprise that would allow them to bypass the middlemen, to the benefit of both them and the customer. Or what if workers’ co-ops took a gamble on introducing some new automation technologies? If the experiment went well, they could potentially cut their own costs, attract more customers, earn more profit for their members, and draw earnings away from the less ethical mainstream businesses to boot.
I suspect that the reason we haven’t seen this happening has something to do with the kind of culture that has informed these startups. These kinds of activists are a diverse bunch, of course, but left-wing cultures, but are more likely to be technophobic than technophilic. Labour unions have a vested interest in securing employment for their members, which gives them an uneasy relationship with labour saving technologies. And environmentalists come from a tradition that is deeply suspicious of technology and technocracy, and prefers to aim for simpler lives more connected to the earth. There is the recent development of left-wing hacktivism, in the style of Anonymous, but it’s a marginal movement that often attacked by other left-wing activists and critics.
Indeed, when a new and as yet undefined technology appears on the horizon, the most common reaction in the left-wing press is suspicion. Bloggers and newspaper columnists will worry about what this will mean for labour, the environment, for marginalized communities, and for a whole other range of causes. The question that is always asked is “is this new technology good or bad”, and the articles tend to suggest the latter. Bitcoin is an excellent example of this dynamic: Some initial excitement over the potential for a currency beyond the control of the banks quickly gave way to paranoia over the currency’s libertarian origins. Rather than imagine how cryptocurrency could be used for social objectives while curbing its potential misuses, activists simply settled on demonising it.
The problem with this is that, with a few very obvious exceptions, technologies are neither inherently good nor bad. Technologies are inert until people step in to define them. Internet-powered taxi services and social media are taking a nasty turn because we have allowed them to be defined and developed by nasty people. The alternative is obvious: Well-meaning people need to step in and seize the initiative. Every time a new technology emerges on the horizon, we should not be asking “is this good or not?”, but “how can we shape this to make it good?” And then we should get to work shaping it. This will require some rethinking of activist cultures. But it’s worth it. Because what’s at stake is not just the technological relevance of activist movements, but also control of technologies that, one way or another, will define the future.