The high-tech, borderless future envisioned by the Facebook boss may not be sustainable for the average person.
Cyberspace is turning into a political programme. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is pumping tens of millions of dollars into “a social welfare group” – a lobby company in all but name – to tell politicians how they should reorder society. He assumes that what is good for Silicon Valley is good for everyone else. And if you don’t ask too many questions, it is easy to agree, and find his programme surprisingly liberal.
Contrary to the demands of the Tea Party, Zuckerberg wants to ease immigration controls. If bright foreign engineers want to move to California and work for him, he can see no good reason why Congress should stop them. Not just Zuckerberg but Eric Schmidt of Google and virtually every other tech magnate wants Congress to welcome entrepreneurs and young professionals. They support the modishly titled Startup Act 2.0, which would let in foreigners with enough private capital to put Americans to work.
Before Zuckerberg’s lobbying initiative, his Facebook behemoth, along with Amazon, Google and 14 other tech conglomerates, formed the Internet Association to protect another apparently worthy cause: freedom of speech online. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg himself has devoted a small part of his fortune to improving education and would like the US government to follow suit.
American capitalism looks cool and compassionate, particularly when viewed from Britain where every party is the Tea Party now. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives out-do themselves in their competition to tell the biggest lies about immigrants and come up with the most punitive measures to deter them. As the Guardian reported last week, ministers, including the supposed Liberal Democrat David Laws, considered banning the children of illegal immigrants from schools. They were not restrained by any moral consideration. They did not say to themselves that no civilised nation should want to punish children for their parents’ decisions.
To the politicians’ disappointment, they discovered they could not play the hardman because their bleeding heart predecessors in the 20th century had signed the UN convention on the rights of the child, which compelled Britain to educate all children regardless of their background. Undeterred, Nick Clegg began talking as if he were a medieval monarch demanding hostages to ensure a baron’s good behaviour. Swarthy-skinned characters from dubious destinations must pay a bond before they arrive, he has decided, and only collect it when they leave. To top it all, David Cameron makes great play of his plans to stop migrants claiming benefits, and never bothers to tell the public that migrants are far less likely to claim benefits than the rest of us.
Convinced we are doing the world a favour by allowing foreigners to visit us, Britain is retreating into a siege mentality. We are becoming a declining, resentful country on the edge of a declining and resentful continent.
And yet there are good reasons why about two-thirds of people ignore those who say that we would all benefit if more migrants arrived, and tell the opinion pollsters they would prefer to stop them at the borders. Liberals think the argument about immigration is about economics instead of culture. They do not accept that few countries can take mass immigration on the scale Britain has experienced in the past 20 years and maintain a collective identity. It’s no good supporters of open borders saying immigrants do not lower wages. They need to convince the public that they will raise them substantially before hostility to one of the most radical changes in national identity in British history will pass.
In particular, the high-tech, borderless future Zuckerberg promises seems of no use to the majority of people. Unlike previous technological revolutions, the web destroys old jobs – most notably the jobs of retailers, brokers, lawyers, journalists and other classic middlemen – without adding enough new ones. Secure well-paid jobs are going, and we strain our eyes to see where the replacements will come from.
Such complaints are normally dismissed as “Luddism”. But just because the 19th-century Luddites were wrong about the original industrial revolution destroying jobs and living standards does not mean that their successors must always be wrong. Sensible economists worry about automated manufacturing replacing factory workers, Google’s autonomous cars replacing lorry and taxi drivers, and automatic online writing and translation services taking on tasks that only humans have been able to perform since the invention of literacy.
You may hope that humanity will use new technologies to reduce poverty and the drudgery of menial labour. But if you look at how hierarchical and unequal western societies are presently, you might reasonably suspect that Zuckerberg and his contemporaries will just widen the already dizzying chasm between the rich and the rest.
You can see the dilemma most clearly in the tech companies’ much-trumpeted demand for online freedom of speech. Very necessary it sounds, especially in Britain, where elements on the right would close down the BBC if they could, elements of the liberal left would do the same to the tabloids, and politicians from all sides would regulate newspapers and websites. The tech companies’ main concern in recent years has not been, however, promoting free speech either in military dictatorships or authoritarian democracies. Google, Wikipedia and their competitors have been most agitated by Congress’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have forced internet service providers to block access to blacklisted sites providing stolen music, films, books etc.
In the strict sense, the measure is a restriction on the freedom of the public to read what it wants and go where it wants on the web. But if artists, musicians, writers and film-makers cannot earn a living because thieves steal their copyright, they will stop working. The tech giants will not care but creative trades that sustain millions will wither.
Zuckerberg’s future is not a future many people can live in – or at least live in with comfort and security. I am not arguing that the illiberal spasm convulsing Britain is an alternative. A bitter and pinched future is not worth having either. But the absence of alternatives to Silicon Valley’s cool capitalism shows the depth of our current predicament. Since the crash, we have known that our old way of doing business is over. We have understood that we have to rebalance the economy and reorder society. We’ve heard it all a thousand times. The trouble is we don’t know how to do it.
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