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Rob Larson’s witty and informative Bit Tyrants provides a welcome analysis of corporate tech giants, and a mass strategy for confronting them, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

Rob Larson, Bit Tyrants. The Political Economy of Silicon Valley (Haymarket Books 2020), 316pp.

Tech companies often like to portray themselves as different from other corporations. They are the purveyors of a wonderful, technological future, a million miles away from stuffy capitalists who wear suits and sit in boardrooms. As Google’s former motto, ‘Don’t Be Evil’ tried to convey, they are transparent and on our side. It will not come as an unbearable surprise to any readers here that the reality is not quite like that, but the details of the evils of Microsoft, Apple, Google et al, as exposed by Larson, are instructive.

It is widely recognised that these tech companies have become tremendously powerful. As Larson says:

‘all the feverish worship of Innovation can’t hide the fact that the technology companies have largely taken over the economy, hoarded our data, played dirty to crush challengers, and utterly reshaped our lives to their advantage’ (p.2).

The enormous amount of data they amass on us means that ‘they know us intimately, even the things that we hide from those closest to us.’ They know this not from any disinterested motive, but in order to profit: ‘Where we go, what we do, what we talk about, who we talk to, and who we see - everything is recorded and, at some point, leveraged for value’ (p.74). As Google executive Andy Rubin admitted, ‘We don’t monetize the thing we create. We monetize the people that use it’ (p.122).

The new robber barons

Tech companies would like us to think that our data and our lives are safe with them. Larson makes the case however that, far from being a new sort of capitalist, tech company CEOs can reasonably be compared to the ‘robber barons’. These were late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century figures like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan, who famously used their power to compete with and attempt to destroy each other, regardless of the harm caused to their employees and the public. Just as the robber barons moved into railroads, adversely affecting what should always have been publicly owned infrastructure, so now companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are moving into internet infrastructure. Amazon is the world’s largest supplier of cloud services, while Google estimates that 25% of the world’s internet traffic is on Google-owned infrastructure.

The robber barons had not the slightest intention of running their railroads for public benefit. J P Morgan famously snarled, after he had helped cause the Northern Pacific Panic of 1901 and ruined thousands of small investors, ‘I owe the public nothing’ (p.7). There is a recognised difficulty in criticising companies like Facebook and Twitter on sites which depend on them for their reach, as journalist Nathan Robinson pointed out in his article, ‘Why I Love Mark Zuckerberg and Can Never Say a Word Against Him’ (p.175). It is also well known that all these companies have deep pockets when it comes to paying for lawyers. I therefore could not possibly comment on the likely attitudes of tech CEOs to infrastructure and services for the public good, but note that it is all the more to Larson’s credit that he has amassed a considerable body of evidence to support the conclusion that, like the robber barons, ‘tech CEOs are often gigantic assholes’ (p.33).

Larson first makes this observation in the context of Microsoft corporate history, going on to comment that when Gates testified for Microsoft in the anti-trust case against them in 1998-2000, he came over as ‘a transparently evasive and condescending douchebag’ (p.41). It is not, however, just Bill Gates. According to Robert Sutton, of Stanford Business School, it sometimes seemed as if Steve Jobs’ full name was ‘Steve Jobs that asshole’ because he was called that so frequently (p.58). Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, meanwhile, is a ‘particularly notorious corporate tyrant’ (p.95) according to Larson, prone to temper tantrums which his underlings call his ‘nutters’, while Larry Page, co-founder of Google, not to be outdone, is also ‘a bullying capitalist tyrant’ (p.155).

The characters of the CEOs seem to have shaped the corporate cultures of the major tech companies. For all that their public image is of modern, exciting organisations, as Larson reveals, in actuality they are often hierarchical, conformist and elitist. Google, for example, ranks job applicants according to, among other things, how prestigious a college they attended. It seems clear that this culture is driven from the top, with the CEOs surrounding themselves with obsequious yes-men who imitate their every move. Gates, apparently, has a habit of rocking back and forward on his chair, which is then copied loyally by his subordinates. The corporate culture of Microsoft and Apple is, Larson comments, illustrated by ‘Gates’s rooms full of rocking men and Jobs’s campus of turtlenecked jackasses.’ Similarly, at Amazon, ‘Bezos has cultivated his own inner circle of dickish subordinates that … even within the company have the “playfully derisive” nickname “Jeff Bots”’ (p.95).

Sexism and exploitation

The term ‘yes-men’ is accurate here, as these tech companies have an often poor record when it comes to sexism. Microsoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella, for example, once suggested to a conference that female staff should not push for raises but should instead ‘wait for management to notice their contributions’ (p.50). At Facebook, female coders are 35% more likely to have their work rejected than their male colleagues. In the early days of the company, they also had put up with ‘a crude mural of hetero-fantasy lesbianism’ every time they used the women’s bathroom (p.186).

While female staff at the tech companies may have it particularly bad, as Larson makes clear, these companies can be terrible places to work for everyone. The long-hours culture at Microsoft, with stretches of particularly brutal overwork dubbed ‘death marches’, has Microsoft employees called ‘Microserfs’, but conditions at the other tech companies are often just as harsh. While it is true that highly-qualified tech workers should have options if they want to escape these working conditions, the companies make this as difficult as possible, with a ‘no poaching’ rule aimed at preventing qualified staff from using the demand for their skills to improve their wages.

Conditions for staff working in warehouses and factories connected to the tech companies are far worse. Workers in Foxconn’s factories, making hardware for Apple, for example, face near impossible quotas and public humiliation for not meeting them. When in 2010, workers began committing suicide by jumping from the roof of the factory’s dorm buildings, the company reacted not by improving conditions but by installing suicide nets to stop them. As a result of the adverse publicity when the story went public, Larson notes that threatening suicide has now become a tactic for the beleaguered and mistreated workers. In 2012, for example, 150 workers threatened to jump to their deaths and successfully won a promise of some improvements from management.

Foxconn is the best-known example of the tech companies’ appalling mistreatment of workers in factories and warehouses, but it is not the only one. Amazon has a similar culture of borderline impossible quotas for their warehouse staff. ‘The demands rise and rise, suggesting a purposeful strategy of running workers to exhaustion and then replacing them’ (p.116). At the end of March 2020, Amazon worker Chris Smalls was fired for leading a walkout of staff at their New York warehouse to demand PPE and hazard pay amid Amazon’s failure to protect the workforce against COVID-19.

Strategies of resistance

Much of this is widely known. The question is not really whether the tech companies are to be trusted with the immense power they have, but given that they’re not, what we can do about it. One obvious reaction is to argue that we should simply walk away from them; find a more ethical social-networking site than Facebook, a more secure messaging app than WhatsApp, abandon Windows for Linux, etc. The problem with this sort of recommendation is that it ignores the network effects that have helped make these companies so dominant in the first place. Just as there is little value in having a telephone if no one else does, the point of being on a social-networking platform is that everyone else is there too. Similarly, there are search engines other than Google, but Google, as the biggest, is likely to find the best results, even if the company, as Larson says, is something that ‘rhymes with “shmevil”’ (p.152).

It is also harder and harder to avoid these companies, even if you do not have an account with them. You might not shop at Amazon, but the websites you do use may well be sitting on their servers. Eschewing these companies’ services does not even necessarily protect you from them collecting your data. Some of the Share buttons that enable users to share web pages direct to Facebook or Twitter send information back to these companies about everyone who visits the page, whether they have an active account with them or not. There is also of course the problem that if you do find the perfect, ethical social-networking site, app, or ISP, there is no guarantee that they will not get bought up by one of the tech giants just as you were congratulating yourself at having escaped.

What this means is that we cannot take on the tech companies as consumers. This is a political issue and has to be fought politically. As Larson notes, there has been some effective organising among Amazon workers across national borders and this gives us a model for the sort of international organising which is both necessary and possible to take on these multi-national corporations. There is also potential, Larson believes, for user strikes. Since the majority of the content from which companies like Facebook and Google make money is generated by their users for free, there should be opportunities here for us to withdraw our unremunerated labour. Even temporary drops in user engagement would have an effect on their ad revenue, so there is potentially some opportunity here to hurt these companies’ bottom lines.

Larson argues that what we need here is the mass strike: widespread strike action, on an international scale, for social good. The tech infrastructure and services which have become central to our lives need to be brought under democratic control, by their workers and their users. Larson recognises that this will not be an easy fight, but there are immediate demands we can make which would be both beneficial in themselves and which would energise activists to fight for the more transformative changes we need.

As COVID-19 has demonstrated, the call for publicly owned broadband, free at the point of use, was not so much socialist pie in the sky as a sober assessment of the central place that internet infrastructure now has in all our lives. Campaigning for this and for controls on the tech companies’ amassing and using of our data would be a first step towards democratic control of the tech sector. Larson sums up, in pithy style, the position and what is at stake:

‘For all the world’s breathless, cringey, sycophantically worshipful puff pieces on tech CEOs and their slick products and free services, the sheer scale of their economy-conquering, worker-abusing, all-knowing power is finally eclipsing their economic alibi. If our lives and economy now rely on these firms and their platforms, they are too important to be left in the hands of the companies’ (p.252).

The fight back against the tech companies may not be simple, but it is essential.

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Tagged under: Book reviews
Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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