Big Tech Lies. In a big way. And trusting them as a source of news and information is a very dangerous thing.
Let’s start with imagery. We’ve all heard of the cloud, right? It connotes this amorphous puffy vision of data residing in big puffy cumulous clouds. Almost like heaven. You send your backups there, all your personal photos, your financial records, everything. We all know now that keeping such data just on the local version of our computers isn’t safe; we need a back up on “the cloud”, whether we use Dropbox, or Microsoft’s Cloud, or Google or Apple’s version. Sometimes you’ll even see techies wearing shirts with pictures of those nice white cumulus clouds.
But the reality is quite different. The “cloud” is not some amorphous floating body in the air. It’s actually quite real, takes huge amounts of space, and is very ugly.
In fact, a blight on the landscape. The physical manifestation of the cloud is data centers, which store your data all over the world. They are huge and ugly and about as “uncloud like” as they could possibly be.
The world center for data centers is Ashburn, in Loudoun County, Virginia. Loudoun, not by coincidence, is the richest county in the United States, and a hub for technology. Ashburn developed as a hub for data centers because there was a lot of vacant land there, and it is near Vienna, Virginia, where “Mae East”, the Internet’s earliest physical connection points was located.
The cloud could be the central metaphor for big tech; it promises transparency but delivers something completely different.
Andrew Blum is a journalist who investigated the physical manifestations of the Internet. This is what he found when he visited, or tried to visit, one of Google’s data centers:
On its corporate website, I’d even read a little note about it (which later disappeared): “We realize that data centers can seem like ‘black boxes’ for many people, but there are good reasons why we don’t reveal every detail of what goes on at our facilities, or where every data center is located,” it said. At The Dalles, they’d gone so far as to scrub the satellite image of the data center on Google Maps—the picture wasn’t merely outdated, but actively obscured.
In dozens of visits to the places of the Internet, people I’d met had been eager to communicate that the Internet wasn’t a shadowy realm but a surprisingly open one, dependent to its core on cooperation, on information. Driven by profit, of course, but with a sense of accountability.
Google was the outlier. I was welcomed inside the gates, but only in the most superficial way. The not-so-subliminal message was that I, and by extension you, can’t be trusted to understand what goes on inside its factory—the space in which we, ostensibly, have entrusted the company with our questions, letters, even ideas. The primary colors and childlike playfulness no longer seemed friendly—they made me feel like a schoolkid. This was the company that arguably knows the most about us, but it was being the most secretive about itself. (Blum, Andrew. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (pp. 248-249)).
The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, has the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. That’s an amusing slogan, because the big tech companies don’t believe in either democracy or transparency, at least when it comes to their own affairs. The CEOs are, in theory, responsible to boards, and ultimately to shareholders, but corporate governance has become a joke in the world of big tech. Jeff Bezos makes all the decisions at Amazon, and no board member would dream of questioning his judgement. In fact, some articles refer to him as the “owner” of Amazon, despite the fact that he owns less than 20% of the company.
Many tech CEOs should have their judgement questioned. The board of Theranos, which turned out to be the greatest fraud since Enron, was composed of very distinguished members, including former Secretary of States Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. But the board, despite being legally responsible for the operation of the company, never took a vote. As CEO Elizabeth Holmes said, “The board is a placeholder. I make all the decisions here.” Sometimes there’s no need for a board at all; when Snap went public, they became the first company to completely deprive shareholders of any voting rights at all. In fact, many big tech companies have dual voting classes for shares, so the founders and CEOs retain control even when they sell stock to the public.
Normally the boards have important committees, like the compensation committee at Yahoo, which should get some kind of award for the worst decisions in tech, after paying Marissa Mayer over $200 million for 4 years of mediocre work, and then over $100 million for one failed year of a chief operating officer.
Tesla, which has never earned a profit in its 14 years of existence, made CEO and founder Elon Musk a compensation agreement that would potentially allow him to become the most highly compensated CEO in history – and this for a man who works part time at Tesla among his other ventures, who was recently sued by the SEC and investors for misleading investors, was sued after calling a Thai rescue diver a pedophile, and who generally exhibits the same amount of impulse control on Twitter as Donald Trump.
Big tech companies have two standards, one for themselves and one for everyone else. They laud democracy, but run their companies like autocrats, even when the public owns the companies. They champion egalitarianism, even while paying themselves huge salaries, often for very mediocre performance. They believe in transparency, but not at the companies they control.
Still believe in “the cloud”?