How and why to break up Big Tech
My latest Locus Magazine column is “Vertically Challenged,” an analysis of why and how to break up Big Tech, and the changing narratives of tech leaders that make these breakups likely.
Science fiction has always trafficked in tales of supergenius business tycoons — sometimes as heroes whose singular vision shines through our collective foolishness, and sometimes as supervillains whose great intellect allows them to subordinate whole nations to their self-interested plans.
These narratives have been of enormous use to the tech leaders who conquered the tech landscape. At first, they styled themselves as Tony Stark-style superbeings whose wisdom was so beyond our ken that they could not be challenged. Then, as that narrative grew stale, they pivoted to styling themselves as evil supergeniuses whose empires emerged from their transhuman mental powers, who cannot be removed without risking the very firmament of our digital society.
That’s where the debate over tech has arrived at: the idea that we must preserve giants like Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon to continue to derive the benefits they deliver, and that only the great geniuses at their helms are qualified to lead them. In this narrative, the best we can hope for is to create constitutional monarchies, in which we acknowledge the permanent divine right to rule of King Zuck, but drape him in golden chains anchored by regulatory aristocrats who keep him from getting too frisky.
Or, to switch metaphors, these tech tycoons are styled as superpowerful extraterrestrials, irreplaceable, who must be tamed and directed by governments to serve as “national champions” who will represent our domestic interests by projecting power over the globe on our behalf.
But science fiction is (as usual) way ahead of the tech narrative-generation machine. In sf, we’ve generally fallen out of love with the tycoon — where these business titans appear, they are revealed to be bumbling sociopaths whose unique talent is in ignoring their consciences as they cheat, crush and loot their way to power.