The Tyranny of the Tech Platforms: Automating the Virtuous Cycle



“The virtuous cycle occurs when momentum builds around the ecosystem. The more developers the ecosystem can attract, then, the more products will be created, which entices more customers to the ecosystem, …which fuels more development, which attracts still more customers, etc.” 



At the 2016 Davos World Economic Forum (WEF), Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF, expressed his optimism about the positive impact of the tech platforms—and specifically artificial intelligence (AI)—on the global economy, arguing that the 21st century tech economy has inaugurated a fourth industrial revolution. Succumbing to the latest edition of a technological exuberance, Schwab opined that we are witnessing a series of previously unimagined tech-driven miracles, comparable in many respects to the first industrial revolution, which saw that era’s new tools—Watt’s steam engine and Ford’s assembly line—as life-changing means to enhance both manufacturing efficiency and worker productivity, thereby facilitating capitalism. Schwab elaborates on the thrilling prospect of applying the tech platform’s AI not just to the consumer products industries but to any number of aging manufacturing infrastructures, stating: “The AI revolution is a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres….” He writes: “The ubiquity of mobile devices connecting billions of people around the world, coupled with emerging tech breakthroughs in fields, such as AI, robotics, the IoT, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing, is creating a new framework for industries…”[1]


Before we pop the cork in the champagne bottle, we should consider the dark side of the tech economy—the fact that most legacy manufacturing companies feel compelled to either adapt, partner, or converge with key aspects of the tech economy to avoid obsolescence. Examples of organizations under duress include the Hollywood media industry, the Detroit automobile, newspapers, banking and financing, service industries (e.g. travel, hospitality, taxis, etc.) and nearly all consumer products industries selling books, toys, cosmetics, and clothing in physical retail stores (e.g., Barnes and Noble, ToysRus, etc.)[2]  Many of these are hundred-year-old companies with massively scaled bureaucracies and complex infrastructures that make it difficult to make radical changes in their core operations. Professor Schwab’s comparison of the first and fourth industrial revolutions is meant to invoke the “rising tide lifts all boats” aphorism typically used to describe interventions by regulatory agencies, such as the federal reserve, which adjusts interest rates to enhance economic growth, increase jobs, and manage inflation on behalf of society at large. The “big four” tech platforms—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA)—should not be evaluated according to the same yardstick given that they are commercial entities whose activities are designed to maximize profits by enlisting users to engage with their online services in order to harvest the resulting data.


We may want to put the cork back in the champagne bottle when we consider the damage being caused to career employment, labor unions, and workers’ rights more generally as a result of the tech platforms maintaining power and wealth in part by hiring digital freelancers and contract workers instead of career employees. For example, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon(GAFA) hire record numbers of contract workers, who, in the case of Alphabet-owned Google are granted access to the cafeteria and shuttles but lack access to more important worker protections. According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, “These workers serve meals and clean offices. They write code, handle sales calls, recruit staff, screen YouTube Videos, test self-driving cars and even manage entire teams—a sea of skilled laborers who fuel the $800 billion company but reap few of the benefits and opportunities available to direct employees.”[3]

Nothing compares to the deplorable working conditions that accompanied the first industrial revolution, which included low wages, long hours, exploitative practices toward women, immigrants, and child laborers, as well as oppressive living circumstances; however, given the gold-rush mentality surrounding technology, many of today’s career employees working for legacy manufacturers are leaving behind secure jobs for precarious opportunities in the tech economy based on fears that they lack the requisite skills to survive the future.


Additional high-performing tech platforms, such as Uber and Airbnb, have reinforced the neoliberal impulse that compels consumers to participate in the gig economy by encouraging individual car owners to provide a taxi service as an additional source of income or, in the case of Airbnb, by enlisting homeowners to run hospitality services out of their own homes. This second tier of successful tech companies—Netflix, Uber, Tesla, and Airbnb (NATU)—are key beneficiaries of both venture capitalist investment and public enthusiasm. Venture capital investors, who may also serve as advisory board members, often advise the tech company to remain private to shield the celebrated tech founder from the more restrictive workplace policies of publicly traded companies. The Los Angeles Times examines the disturbing impact of this practice on workers and on the reputation of the tech company: “Uber’s record on sexual harassment, diversity and company culture has been a big hit to their brand.”[4] Uber founder Travis Kalanick became the poster child for this type of reckless and immoral behavior, until he was forced to resign in 2017 amidst growing backlash from a leaked video that featured the billionaire founder chiding Uber driver Fawzi Kamel, who dared to complain about his inability to earn a living wage.[5]


Finally, we may want to put the champagne bottle back on the shelf when considering the record numbers of users who have become impromptu creators spending most of their waking moments generating a steady yield of algorithmic media content (e.g., texts, photos, videos) with very little emotional return on their investment of time and creative energy. The power imbalance between social media content users and the tech platforms becomes even more pronounced when we consider the seemingly endless supply of dedicated aspirants to the microcelebrity throne whose combined resources are helping build momentum inside the virtuous cycle and whose role in the equation is comparable to a hamster ceaselessly toiling on a wheel. These weekly productions across multiple platforms have generated a proliferation of teenage fashion and beauty-related Snapchat Stories, mom channels on Facebook and Instagram, and livestream computer game broadcasts on TwitchTV.


By employing AI and UX design features to goad users into creating and sharing algorithmic media content on a 24-7 basis, the tech platforms have automated the production cycle; in the process, they have freed up valuable resources to automate key aspects of the legacy Hollywood system, including marketing, distribution, merchandising, and more. Meanwhile, Google and Facebook have created a duopoly in the digital advertising space by recycling consumer data in order to curate digital distribution (targeting the right consumer with the right online media content); at the same time, they have trained advertisers to use self-tending algorithms to automate media buys. While all this automation is good news for the tech titans, it may not be good for the future of our culture industries. The tech platforms’ self-sustaining media ecosystem, much like self-driving cars, work well in theory as long you’re willing to overlook the occasional glitch, such as a fatal incident involving an automated Uber car. We should resist the temptation to marvel at the latest tech platform efficiency and instead consider the dark underbelly of these mechanized systems. The tech platforms are reinventing the future of entertainment by engineering a self-sustaining, digital media ecosystem that requires less and less human involvement to sustain profits; however, this last bit should give us pause if we value the capacity for humans to create art that wages war on unfettered systems of institutional power, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.


This essay is excerpted from Denise Mann’s forthcoming book, Content Wars: Tech Empires vs. Media Empires.


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