In the nineteenth century, as British settlers poured into colonial Delhi, many complained about the venomous cobras that roamed the streets. In response, the British government began a programme of cash for dead cobras. Native inhabitants began breeding and killing cobras in order to collect the cash. When the colonial government found out, they cancelled the programme, which prompted angry natives to release the snakes. The attempt to eliminate cobras from city streets tripled the urban cobra population.
Libertarians love to point to such examples of government policies that made life worse—a phenomenon known as the law of unintended consequences. As libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek puts it, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
Social mechanisms are incredibly complex. Most people have a sense of personal responsibility, which can bring out the best in us and in society. Bureaucratic interventions, by contrast, tend to infantilise people, while risking unintended consequences. More often than not, a reliance on the competence of individuals is preferable to a reliance on government coercion.
But libertarianism is not always the answer. Libertarians tend to project a romanticised nineteenth-century worldview onto the modern landscape, and underestimate how much has changed.
Wars are now fought with drones and economic sanctions in the shadow of an ever-present nuclear threat. Economies are now entirely interconnected, markets are interdependent and supply chains stretch across the globe. The world’s population is approaching eight billion, but we have no idea how to manage unlimited growth on a limited-resource planet, or how to respond to growing unemployment as the age of automation shifts into overdrive or to developments such as a new Boston Dynamics robot that can move up to 800 boxes per hour. The job market is becoming increasingly skills-dependent, volatile and transient, and people are become increasingly rootless and lacking in purpose. Meanwhile, many of us live tethered to screens that hack, track and sell our every impulse.
Traditional libertarianism is most out of step with modernity in its attitude towards the changes caused by the revolution in information technology. Ironically, most of the tech movers and shakers of Silicon Valley are notoriously libertarian They want government off their backs so they can adapt quickly and do what is necessary to compete. And in the process, they are doing what the free market does best—providing increased efficiency and new possibilities at affordable prices. On the surface, the success of big tech seems to vindicate the libertarian approach. But this approach poses a serious threat to our freedom. A few tech companies now exercise a degree of control over our lives that in some ways exceeds that of our governments—and they do so without any accountability to the will of the people.
Libertarians want less government intervention and more freedom to conduct their lives as they see fit. This has traditionally led them to oppose intervention in foreign affairs, favour the decriminalization of victimless crimes and support a laissez-faire approach to the economy. They believe that the market is a self-correcting force, and that trying to regulate it through top-down constraints only creates problems. But this belief has at times put libertarianism at odds with its own values.
The end of the nineteenth century was a time of rapid transformation in the US. Years of libertarian policies had allowed a few individuals, such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan, to monopolise their industries and accumulate immense wealth. Many people worked in mind-numbingly boring jobs, in inhumane conditions, for such low wages that families could only make ends meet if their children began working as early as five years old. Too many lived in crowded disease-ridden tenements, worked from dawn to dusk, and had little hope of improving their lot. With no reason to consider negative externalities, the robber barons polluted, cut corners and discarded workers who got hurt on the job. It was just business.
Although this approach may have spurred technological progress, instead of encouraging ingenuity and self-reliance, it bred apathy, drunkenness and historic levels of the anxiety and depression that the doctors of the time called neurasthenia. And as monopolies expanded into every crevice of American commerce, the economic environment became anything but free. Consistent with the libertarian hypothesis, some of the best social solutions were local and self-organized. Labour unions grew in strength, and people came together to question the values of the day and to pursue physical resilience, virtue and personal skill. This manifested in the growth of public gyms and youth athletic programmes such as those offered by the YMCA and the Boys Scouts of America. However, government intervention also played an important role: to prevent a small number of extremely rich men from having absolute control over American life, the government established antitrust laws and protections for workers. And some of the positive developments were government initiatives, such as the movement to reclaim city space to create outdoor playgrounds.
A libertarian might reflexively object to any governmental action in response to today’s problems, but this objection would put her at odds with a more fundamental libertarian value. Libertarians want to limit government intervention only as a means to an end—more freedom to conduct their lives as they see fit: uncoerced, unmanaged, and unburdened by unnecessary limitations and inorganic bureaucratic maze. The reflexive impulse to limit any kind of government intervention may actually be an obstacle to that fundamental goal.
As Matthew Crawford shows in his book, Why We Drive, we’ve come to expect the same level of bureaucratic inhumaneness from the corporate world that we would have traditionally ascribed to government agencies:
Are you not happy with your bank? Is your statement riddled with mysterious, recurring charges that nobody can explain? Well, all you need to do is open an account somewhere else. It’s simple. Then contact the twelve entities (each with its own bureaucracy—you’ll need those PINS) that you have automatic monthly payments going to from your bank, and then speak to someone in the payroll department at your employer about getting your deposits transferred over as well. So yes, you can be persnickety about your thieving bank, and cable company, and cell phone provider, and health and auto and home insurers, if you are willing to become a full-time, unpaid bureaucrat yourself. Apparently that’s what it takes to be free, in the free market sense. Who has the time? Instead we are angry … It is the ressentiment of a slave, based on objective weakness and fantasies of revenge.
This sense of helplessness in relation to a distant, faceless leviathan in our modern free market is fairly common: when markets provide too little competition, or corporations have too much power, they tend to have the same impact as overly intrusive governments. This is particularly the case with big tech, whose business model relies upon an almost godlike capacity to influence our behaviour.
How Does Google Make Money?
A traditional market is simple: you decide that you want to buy a pair of shoes; you give money to the store, and they give you the shoes.
But in the attention market, services are offered at little to no cost. We get a product, and the producers are paid by advertisers. Advertisers pay for ads and for subtle mentions in places that attract the most eyeballs or command the most social influence. The more time you spend scrolling and clicking on a page, the more money tends to go there. In this economic model, we are not the customers: we are the product that is being sold. And to catch more humans, you need better bait.
The attention economy is not new: we’ve had television or radio commercials for as long as most of us have been alive. But it has been growing exponentially since the birth of the internet and especially since the popularization of the smartphone. With so much money at stake, the game tends to shift to figuring out how to hack our impulses and keep our attention, which, like efforts to persuade us to buy junk food, tend to be neither nourishing nor socially beneficial.
This problem is easiest to see in the information landscape. Traditionally, higher quality news sources were expected to be more successful than lower quality ones, and to give the public access to socially beneficial information. For example, the muckrakers of the Progressive Era helped expose the ills of big business. Today, much of the news industry is entertainment that has been curated to appeal to our most trivial impulses. The information ecosystem supports the survival and reproduction of whatever gets the most clicks, rather than what matters.
But what about Google? They’re just an impartial middleman, right?
Well, no. Google is the world’s largest advertising firm. And the advertising industry is dedicated to manipulating behaviour so that people are more likely to purchase a product. Traditionally, this has been accomplished by a combination of celebrity endorsements and creative advertising campaigns. But Google came to dominate advertising by using different methods—two in particular.
First, Google is a powerful gatekeeper of online information: they determine what information comes up in any Google search. Advertisers are essentially forced to comply with whatever terms Google sets in order to compete at all. But, even more importantly, Google is the largest storehouse of customer information in the world. Whereas, before, companies could only market to a broadly defined demographic, Google and other data tracking companies like Facebook have enabled companies to tailor their marketing to the specific individuals who are most likely to be influenced.
Almost everything we do online is tracked and analysed by Google algorithms to create a clearer picture of who each of us is, how we can be individually manipulated to purchase things, and which products we are most likely to buy. The information they use to create this picture includes much more than our search histories. What is Google Maps? A way of tracking everywhere you go. What is Google drive? A way of tracking everything you work on. What about Gmail? It’s a way of inferring information about our thoughts, needs and desires based on the words we use in our emails. So the next time Google offers us another seemingly awesome free feature, we should ask ourselves: Why would the world’s largest advertising firm spend money on this?
For example, why is Google currently investing so heavily in self-driving cars? As Matthew Crawford suggests, they are probably hoping that when you don’t have to pay attention to the road, you’ll spend more time using Google services on your smartphone:
By colonizing your commute … those precious fifty-two minutes of your attention are now available to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The patterns of your movements through the world will be made available to those who wish to know you more intimately—for the sake of developing a deep, proprietary science of steering your behavior. Self-driving cars must be understood as one more escalation in the war to claim and monetize every moment of life that might otherwise offer a bit of private head space.
Shoshana Zuboff calls this new industry surveillance capitalism and says that we can’t expect companies to abstain from it of their own accord, because it is too profitable. As Matthew Crawford explains:
The value of targeting can be construed as a quest for certainty, because ultimately what a marketer is weighing is the expected value of making a pitch, and this is a function of probabilities. A conventional advertisement has an expected value of some fraction of a penny for every consumer reached. But suppose you could make a pitch to an individual customer at this moment when they are in this location engaged in this activity with this physiological state and this emotional state and this constellation of social pressures and this history of past purchases and these insecurities and these aspirations and this holiday bonus coming, and this facial expression, which our machine learning tells us is highly correlated with a mood of receptivity?
It was one thing for marketers to brilliantly hack the human subconscious and plant seductive messages in high volume areas. At least when they were doing that, their actions were transparent enough that we could cultivate a decent defence. But the balance is tipping in their favour, to the point at which we will be unable to counteract their influence. And there is no way to completely avoid giving them your data, at least not if you wish to live in the modern world.
Given these realities, how can anyone think that surveillance capitalism is okay? How is the power and motivation of big tech any different from that of an intrusive government regime?
Google acts precisely like an aggressive colonizer. For example, in 2007, Google set out to create street view, a 360-degree real-world view of the entire globe. Camera cars drove around, slowly photographing the world, despite meeting resistance in many communities.
Big tech has used a number of strategies to discourage people from demanding that the government constrain surveillance capitalism. One strategy is simply to get people habituated to invasions of their privacy. Another is a PR campaign that associates big tech with openness and progress. A third is to suggest that tech expansion is so natural and inevitable that any attempts to limit or direct it will be futile.
But there is nothing natural or inevitable about surveillance capitalism. It limits our freedom to determine who we would like to be and how we would like to behave. These companies have shown that they are likely to subvert our wills and intrude where they are not welcome. If ever federal governments had a responsibility to intervene, it’s in this situation. Governments are the only institutions with sufficient power to constrain big tech.
Libertarians and interventionists have a shared interest in enabling governments to intervene. People of all political persuasions need to rally around the cause of freedom.