New-tech moguls: the modern robber barons?

My (long) Observer essay about the new Masters of the Digital Universe.

What’s much more significant about these moguls is that they share a mindset that renders them blind to the untidiness and contradictions of life, not to mention the fears and anxieties of lesser beings. They are technocrats who cleave to a worldview that holds that if something is technically possible then it should be done. How about digitising all the books in the world? No problem: you just throw resources and technology at the task. And if publishers protest about infringement of copyright and authors moan about their moral rights, well, that just shows how antediluvian they are. Or how about photographing every street in Europe, or even the world? Again, no problem: it’s technically feasible, after all. And if Germans object to the resulting intrusion on their privacy, well let them complain and we’ll pixelate the sods. Oh – and when we discover that those same cars have been hoovering up the details of our home Wi-Fi networks, their bosses say “Oops! Sorry: it was a mistake.” Same story with the high-resolution satellite imagery beloved of Google and – now – Apple. Same story with Mark Zuckerberg’s fanatical, almost sociopathic, belief that the default setting for life should be “public” rather than “private”. The prevailing technocratic motto is: if something can be done, then it ought to be done. It’s all about progress, stoopid.

Actually, it’s all about values. And money. The trouble is that technocrats don’t do values. They just do rationality. They love good design, efficiency, elegance – and profits. That’s why one of the poster children of the industry is Apple’s creative genius, Jonathan Ive, who designs beautiful kit in California which is then assembled in Chinese factories. And when the execrable working conditions prevalent in such places are exposed, the company’s senior executives profess themselves surprised and appalled and resolve to do everything they can to ameliorate things. And we believe them – and continue eagerly to purchase the gizmos manufactured in such oppressive plants.

Why are we so credulous, so forgiving? It’s partly because wealth – like political power – is a powerful aphrodisiac. But it’s mainly because we accept these people at their own valuation. We’ve bought into their narrative. They see themselves as progressives, as folks who want to make the world a better, more efficient, more rational place. We’re charmed by their corporate mantras – for example “Don’t be evil” (Google) or “Move fast and break things” (Facebook). In their black turtlenecks and faded jeans they don’t seem to have anything in common with Rupert Murdoch or the grim-faced, silk-hatted capitalist bosses of old. Instead of grinding the faces of the poor, our modern technology magnates move effortlessly from tech forums to TED to All Things D to Davos, reclining on spotlit sofas discussing APIs and cloud computing with respectful or admiring moderators. And in recent times, they are even invited to lunch with President Obama or as guests at political summits where they are fawned upon by presidents and prime ministers who hope that some of the magic dust will rub off on them.

What gets lost in the reality distortion field that surrounds these technology moguls is that, in the end, they are fanatically ambitious, competitive capitalists…