Digital Damnation

Bit Tyrants
The Political Economy of Silicon Valley

By Rob Larson  

Western countries in the throes of deciding how to upgrade to 5G wireless, with the pitfalls of including or excluding China, may be ignoring the dangerous influence in our own backyard — in Silicon Valley.

That’s the premise of Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley, the frightening and frustrating new book about the depredations of tech giants by progressive Rob Larson, professor of economics at Tacoma Community College.

Often portrayed as entrepreneurial champions of liberty and libertarianism, Larson places such giants of the information age as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg squarely in the company of robber barons and monopolists of the 19th century, but with even more money and power.

Larson has written for such leftist magazines as Jacobin, In These Times and Current Affairs. His books include 2018’s Capitalism vs. Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom and Bleakonomics from 2012.

“The internet, so famously free and quirky in the early days of the 1990s, is becoming enclosed by colossal giants of online monopoly capital,” he writes.

Bit Tyrants teems with puns like its title, including chapters on “Macrosoft” and “Disgracebook.” It opens with “The Flaw of Gravity,” in which Larson discusses the “network effect” by which successful systems become even more crucial and desirable — and valuable — as more and more users rely on them.

Microsoft’s Windows operating system, Apple’s phones and tablets, Google, Amazon and Facebook all benefit from the convenience and familiarity of the network effect. If that effect by itself caused competitors to fail, that would be one thing.

But Larson demonstrates, devastatingly, that the supposedly libertarian and benevolent owners of Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook — “the five biggest corporations in the world by market value,” he notes — used predatory practices to solidify their positions, running roughshod over competitors and their own employees alike.

Gates is pictured “slamming his fist into his hand,” vowing to crush his competition. “Jobs was berserk with rage at any competition in the smartphone market,” Larson adds.

Larson is not afraid to use invective in describing the magnates of Silicon Valley. When Jeff Bezos of Amazon justified his company’s tax avoidance because “we’re not getting any of the services,” Larson calls it “arguably the most degenerately stupid statement made by the tech CEOs in this book.”

Some of his other comments are not printable in this newspaper. But he backs up his anger and disdain with copious references. He also cogently points out the ways that the wealthy owners and operators have used donations and other altruistic actions to soften or obscure the problems they allow and cause.

Another of Larson’s problems with the tech sector is how much of their hardware and software was developed with funding from research universities and the government, going back to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) origins of the internet.

Acknowledging both that he uses the products of most of the companies he’s criticizing, and noting the ways that some governments (especially the EU) have tried to rein in the tech giants, Larson comes to the most frustrating part of his thesis with his forlorn hope that the internet could be “socialized” by co-operative action, organization and action such as “user strikes.”

However, he is honest about the uphill battle, given the reach and influence of the monopolies. Having done even some of what he describes, what would they do in response to attempts to dilute their power? Also, how would such organization take place — using the very platforms which they are trying to control?

He may also be overestimating popular commitment, and popular will, and underestimating the apathy of our online age.

It’s not a cheery prospect; Bit Tyrants is potentially as horrifying as any fiction.

— Winnipeg Free Press, March 2020

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