Is big tech the new big oil?
Big oil is the term used to describe large oil and gas companies, especially in relation to their immense economic and political power. I am using the term more generally to refer to energy companies based on fossil fuels. You probably get a bad taste in the mouth with the term ‘big oil’. The ‘tech’ (which should more appropriately be called the Information Technology) industry might be heading in the same direction to become ‘big tech’ and generate the same bad taste.
There is no doubt the current tech revolution is comparable to the industrial revolution in its scope, impact and effects. Industrial revolution which led to the current level prosperity is seen, generally speaking, as a positive phenomenon. The industrial revolution can really be viewed as an energy revolution. We learned to capture increasing amounts of energy and then build things, called machines. These machines could manipulate that energy (it is the textbook definition) to do something we want it to do. We learned to extract the energy trapped in concentrated biomass, essentially called fossil fuels. This was the birth of the so-called big oil.
If the industrial revolution was about capturing and manipulating energy, the tech revolution is about capturing and processing data. This data serves many purposes from understanding the world around us to understanding us. In the knowledge, economy understanding translates to money. This is essentially the reason that data has become the new oil.
Let’s see the similarities and dissimilarities in the positives and negatives of the two revolutions.
The wealth created during the Industrial revolution lifted huge parts of the world and resulted in the ‘industrialized countries’. It is important to note the word countries. While we can debate about the inequality created within countries, it did lift large parts of the world and along with it large population out of poverty, and all the benefits that come with it. But the industrial revolution had a huge part in colonization thereby decreasing the wellbeing of other large parts of the world, increasing the gap between the well-off and the not so well-off countries. The tech revolution is doing something similar in a different way. The tech revolution has played a huge role in globalization and created a never-before level of connectivity across the world helping to decrease the wealth gap between countries, but it has also lead to concentration of global wealth. It is playing a major role in reducing the inequality across countries but increasing it within and at the level of humanity. Amazon is a quintessential example of this. It has concentrated the market of shopping in the hands of few. Jeff Bezos is currently the richest man alive with a net personal wealth of 160 Billion USD. Currently, just 9 of the world’s richest people own more wealth than the poorest 4 billion people on earth and the concentration of wealth has been increasing. Six out of these nine people are from the tech world.
The big oil revolution brought with it the energy required to utilize a massive amount of natural resources. We used it to significantly increase the material needs and ability to provide them. The ‘collateral damage’ of that was overexploitation of the natural world. Our current global ecological footprint is 1.7 Earths i.e. we currently need 1.7 times the Earths to be at a sustainable level of consumption. Along with it came the mass extinction of species (we are in fact currently living in a mass extinction event — measured by reduction in biodiversity), pollution of air/water and destruction of natural systems. We essentially hacked and exploited the natural ecosystem.
The current IT revolution is doing something similar, but instead of hacking and exploiting the natural system we have started to hack and exploit ourselves. We are the source of generation of large amounts of data, hence if data is the new oil it only makes economic sense that companies would try to extract as much as possible of it without considering the ‘collateral damage’. The big tech companies use advanced psychological manipulation techniques to make us generate more data. Every design element, every animation, every notification is made in a way to make us hooked to it. Social media is the archetypal example of this. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook admitted that the thought process was ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’. New York Time columnist wrote in an article “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops”. The smartest and most highly paid people of our generation are trying to figure out how to make us click ads and to continue looking at our screens. And we see the results around us. We are addicted to it, we get engaged in meaningless twitter quarrels, we look for the next opportunity to get the best selfie/foodie to post on Instagram and we measure our self-worth by the number of likes we get. The time people spend in front of their screen has grown immensely. One study found that 75% of children in the UK spend less time outside than prison inmates. We are all becoming data miners. During the industrial revolution, we worked in physically unsafe conditions of oil rigs/mines/factories. Now we do the same work with the comfort of our homes, brightly lit, colourful and ultra high-resolution displays, generating the data and feeding the algorithms that manipulate us to generate more data. The new mines and oil rigs are, everywhere, always, around us.
One of the fundamental problems with us, as society and species, is we don’t really understand time. That is a topic for another blog, but enough to say we are short-sighted and it is especially easy to be short-sighted when things are looking good, in the economic term, when there is growth.
Riding the high of unprecedented growth of the industrial revolution lead us to completely ignore the long term consequence of pumping large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, we didn’t understand the impact it could have on the ecosystem. But even when we had enough evidence, and we have had that since the 1960s, we completely ignored it and the big oil made sure we did. Even today, we continue doing it.
The IT revolution is undergoing something similar right now by ignoring the warnings of the AI revolution. The AI risk can be broadly classified into two aspects: short-term market/job disruption and long term Artificial general Intelligence (AGI) development.
The argument given by big tech and technologists about the first issue is that we have had technological revolutions before and people were afraid then as well. We managed to move from being primarily farmers to factory workers, lawyers, programmers, etc. And that would continue, we would move on to jobs that we cannot even imagine now. It’s just a question of training. There are two problems with that argument: 1. It is practically impossible to train a large section of the population in such advanced tasks and 2. What if every new job that is created, and a computer system becomes better at it by learning. We only have physical labour (taken away during the energy revolution) and mental labour (being taken away by the tech revolution) at our disposal as humans.
The argument against the people who fear the risk of AGI can essentially be summarised by the statement: ‘Worrying about AGI is like worrying about the overpopulation of Mars’. This, to me, seems the same kind of argument that was (unfortunately still is) against climate change. And it is very easy to really believe this due to our short-sightedness or ignore it due to the financial gains. There is a proverbial saying in the silicon valley, ‘move fast, break things’, but what if the thing that is broken is unrepairable?
All this is not to undervalue the immense contribution that tech has made and continues to do so. We cannot and should not stop advancements in these technologies. They hold the potential to solve some of the biggest challenges we face and create a level of prosperity like never before. The reason to have this discussion is not to ridicule the tech world but to shine the light from our last revolution to current one so we can learn from the mistakes we made (which we are still struggling to repair) and not repeat them.
Is big tech the new big oil?
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