Often, we no longer feel we have a say over our futures. Instead, tech companies offer us glittery images of luxury and convenience — and prophesise about our fully optimised and automated destiny. Through their product launches, think pieces, and PR departments, tech companies exercise a powerful influence over our sense of what we can do as a society. But for all their talk of innovation and change, these companies present a very limited and static vision of how we could change our world.
We can have a new generation of tech products, but with all the current fundamental structures of power firmly in place. So long as you are still buying merch, you can be in whichever web, metaverse, or cinematic universe you like. Politics is, in part, a struggle over what can appear as possible, and tech companies have been very successful in defining the limits of our political imagination.
This control over the future is particularly important at key turning points in history. In certain moments of crisis and transition, radically different pathways are open to us and there is a struggle over which direction to take. We are arguably at just such a moment of a great realignment in global politics, with dramatic shifts occurring even in the tech sector. Legacy tech companies are rebranding, acquiring competitors, and attempting to fend off challenges from a new generation of companies and products.
It is against this backdrop that two new books seek to address how we might reorient our sense of what is possible by returning to previous transition periods and discerning where things went wrong in order to provide new possibilities for technology and transport today.
The rise of the automobile
In Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Paris Marx eviscerates a century of propaganda from the automobile industry and shows why we can’t trust Big Tech with the future of transport. He tells a tragic story of how our world was built around the demands of the automobile and how corporations effectively sold a car-centred vision of modern life through mobilising resources, building alliances, and exercising control over public debate.
We don’t often think about just how transformative the rise of the automobile has been over almost every aspect of urban life. Roads were extended, cities were redesigned, and the idea of public space was reimagined for an automobile era. Cars also provided the means for middle-class nuclear families to move out to the suburbs, further solidifying class and race divisions.
As the industry grew in the 1920s, pedestrians and other road users were literally driven off streets as these killer machines took over, with catastrophic consequences for our safety and the environment. The dominance of cars over cities has been a disaster for everyone aside from powerful corporate interests. In 2020, 38,680 people were killed by automobiles on US roads, with more young people dying from road deaths than guns. This figure adds to the 3.7 million people that have been killed by motor vehicles in the United States alone since 1899. These deaths fall disproportionately on the old, the poor, and people of colour, not to mention the horrendous environmental damage caused by car emissions.
One of the most surprising features of this story is the complicity of public authorities in facilitating this move desired by the oil and automobile industries. City planners of the early twentieth century saw their role as managing public space and city streets for multiple types of road users. Roads were places that pedestrians, cyclists, horses, carts, and streetcars needed to use safely and effectively. Before their current dominance, there were campaigns to radically limit the use of cars to make space for more traditional forms of transport. The automobile industry conducted a concerted campaign to overcome public opposition to cars until planners ensured cars were given priority on the roads.
Silicon Valley’s future of transportation just involves different ways for people to continue driving cars. They could run on electricity, be ordered through a ride-hail app, or eventually be self-driving. But none of these possibilities ever questions the centrality of the car itself. Paris Marx shows that developing a sustainable and egalitarian future of transport is ultimately a political rather than a technological question. We should question whether the resource extraction, exploitative labor practices, and dominance of powerful interests accompanying new visions of transport should be part of a desirable future.
Privatising the internet
The guiding thread of each book is about the influence that corporations exercise over government policy-making and social relations. Special interests can completely reshape urban landscapes, remake infrastructure, and direct public resources toward private ends, ensuring that governments are ultimately building things that are valuable to powerful corporations.
The privatisation of public services and community spaces has led to the erosion of public goods and an impoverishment of the alternatives to corporate-controlled services. As private wealth and power expands, public wealth diminishes. The rise of a billionaire class — with its selective and self-serving philanthropy, tax havens, and government subsidies — reduces the capacity of governments to provide well-funded public services and amenities. One of the reasons public and not-for profit alternatives can have difficulty competing with corporate giants is not because they are less dynamic or innovative, but because they have been deliberatively defunded and neglected as part of campaigns to destroy alternative futures.
Ben Tarnoff’s Internet for the People: The Fight for our Digital Future shows how the growth of the Internet was driven by the corporate pursuit of profit and by forging new relationships of control. One of its key insights is the centrality of infrastructure in the development of new technology. We should remember the embodied and material nature of seemingly ephemeral digital technology. “The Internet has a body,” Tarnoff implores, “a body of glass, copper, silicon, and a thousand other things — things that have to be dug out of the earth and hammered into useful shapes, with significant inputs of labor and energy.”
This material reality also has a political life. The submarine cables of the Internet follow similar routes of previous telegraph and telephone networks, meaning these fiber-optic cables often replicate colonial patterns mapped out during the high period of European imperialism. The influence of political forces on the development of the Internet is present in every chapter of Tarnoff’s history, revealing at each step how connectivity served powerful interests and was driven by corporate actors.
The book explains how the Internet became privatised and the effect this has on our conception of what it could become today. The central turning point was not the rise of global platforms in the 2000s but allowing private companies to own much of the infrastructure of the Internet in the 1990s. While this occurred over an extended period, by the time of the dotcom bubble, all the pieces were already in place for the commercialisation of online spaces and the creation of corporate empires in this new domain.
This process began with the government allowing industry to take over control of the hardware of the network and create a fully privatised infrastructure at a time when other options were still on the table. It’s important to remember that most of the money used to assemble this intricate network came from public funding, which led to the creation of the backbone of the Internet and the first networks between research universities. But during the free-market triumphalism of the 1990s, privatisation seemed like both an inevitability and a necessary step to more widespread adoption.
From this perspective, the problem with the current generation of platform companies is not their type of business model, but the fact that the Internet has become a business. Challenging the orthodoxy of progressive criticisms of surveillance capitalism, Tarnoff argues that an Internet filled with smaller, more competitive and regulated firms would still be an Internet run in the interests of making profit rather than delivering effective services to users.
When an essential service is marketised it inevitably leads to forms of rent-seeking and extractive practices that benefit powerful corporate interests but leave the vast majority of people shortchanged. Understanding how the Internet was transformed from a collaboration between the government and the university sector into the privatised monster it is today is an important step in knowing what we can do to change it.
The road not taken
What these two books show brilliantly is how historical research can reveal the contingencies of the present. Particular choices led us to where we are today which means we have the ability to choose differently. Paris Marx reminds us that for brief moments there were movements away from an oil-centred society. Jimmy Carter, for example, installed solar panels on the White House and invested large amounts of federal funds into the development of renewable energy. But for a variety of complex reasons, these paths were prematurely closed as corporations reasserted their control.
When it comes to what should be done right now, both books are in agreement: citizens need to mobilise to demand public authorities make bold new investments in infrastructure and use democratically accountable power to counter the influence of corporate interests. The end goal is to reduce the role of the market in the provision of important services and to support higher levels of community and public ownership.
Public alternatives do not all have to be state-owned. For example, Tarnoff advocates for more “people’s pipes” — cooperatively owned community networks that offer low-cost Internet access. He points to the example of North Dakota telephone cooperatives who teamed up with smaller telephone companies for the purchase of sixty rural exchanges as an example of what community networks might offer in terms of reorganising the Internet to serve human needs rather than corporate profits.
Municipal authorities can also build their own networks to serve government-run and community services, such as the example of Washington, DC. These proposals can be tied to a broader municipal program of “community wealth building,” as advocated by Martin O’Neill and Joe Guinan. This could also include publicly owned cloud services, which could be “carved out of a corporate provider like Amazon Web Services” as a means for ensuring greater equality in access to hosting services.
When it comes to digital platforms and services that occur higher up the stack, Tarnoff argues for more decentralised alternatives that break with the underlying logic of the platform economy. Rather than supporting a single state-owned option, he calls for experimentation with multiple self-governing organisations. One anchor point for these new experiments could be public libraries. These public institutions could run their own social media servers or provide users with a range of digital services as a starting point for non-commodified alternatives. It is currently difficult to imagine how these alternatives might operate, which is why we need to invest in collective processes of experimentation with a variety of new forms.
What unites these examples of community-run web services and local broadband with Paris Marx’s urban experiments in bicycle promotion and sustainable public transport from Oslo to Paris is a commitment to the basic principles of social democracy. While both books name capitalism as the fundamental problem, their suggested alternatives draw from the toolbox of social democratic political parties from the pre-neoliberal era.
Solutions are sought from policies since abandoned by many centre-left parties: increased government spending and investment in infrastructure, and exercising greater control over the economy. Some might dismiss this as hopeless nostalgia, a longing for a vanished era that was only temporarily possible due to a specific constellation of factors unique to the mid-twentieth century.
However, in a post-COVID era, certain aspects of this program might find a new role as people demand protection from multiple crises and a larger role for social welfare provisions and protections for workers. The common sense on these issues has shifted greatly since the 1970s, but many of the sensible demands offered in these books were at one point not seen as radical or unrealistic. The dial may still shift such that they are seen as policy options once again.
As anger at the profits taken in by Big Tech increases and people search for alternatives, these two books offer a clear picture of how we ended up in this position — and what we must now do to change it.
James Muldoon is senior lecturer in political science at the University of Exeter and author of the forthcoming Platform Socialism: How to Reclaim Our Digital Future From Big Tech.
Featured image: Reuters
This article was first published on Jacobin.