Most deaths from Covid‐19 will be painful and regrettable, but, given the role its businesses are playing today, the demise of anti‐Big Tech hysteria would be worthy of celebration.
In many ways, our current crisis is seeing the promise of Big Tech fulfilled. The value of greater online connectivity — tech “bringing us together” — has never been clearer. HD quality video calls allow the elderly to continue to see grandchildren while in isolation.
The value of having millions of videos and music on demand is obvious. Online learning and telemedicine, long discussed, are now scaling up out of necessity.
For years, economists lamented that new technologies have shown up everywhere except the productivity data. Perhaps this aberration of normal life will finally lead to better application of tech’s new tools. Regardless, only a fool could deny tech’s innovations have improved economic resilience to this shock.
GDP might still be cratering in light of unprecedented social distancing and enforced shutdowns. But without Big Tech and its logistics, cloud computing, and entertainment capabilities, much continued business activity wouldn’t be possible and enforced lockdowns would be far less tolerable. On both fronts, Big Tech has made the fight against the virus easier.
Yes, ad‐revenue‐dependent tech giants are taking a battering right now. Advertising budgets are often first to be cut as businesses struggle. But this problem isn’t unique to tech — just see how other UK media is suffering. What’s clear is that the tech companies’ front‐end services are becoming crucial for non‐mothballed businesses to function.
Facebook reports skyrocketing use of video calls and messaging. Amazon is one of few firms hiring and raising wages, as demand shifts from shuttered retailers to deliveries. Microsoft reports massive increases in use of its collaborative “Teams” software for businesses.
Google Classroom and YouTube’s Learning Hub are helping millions sustain education as teachers and students are separated. Many new apps launched on Apple’s App Store are directly helping track and fight the virus.
Those for whom Big Tech is a boogeyman will argue we are seeing impenetrable monopolies benefiting further from a crisis. But despite years of being told that competing against Big Tech was impossible due to dominant companies’ large numbers of users, the pandemic proves fierce competition exists across the tech sector.
The number one rated social networking app right now is the group video application Houseparty, which itself competes against WhatsApp, Google Duo and FaceTime. Microsoft Teams is competing with Slack to provide business collaboration tools. Zoom competes with Skype, BlueJeans and others for video conferencing. NextDoor provides a hyper‐local online social network, an alternative to Facebook.
If conventional wisdom that Big Tech companies are monopolies has been proven bankrupt, other platitudes are collapsing too. Competition authorities worldwide often presume that less concentrated sectors would be better not just for consumers directly, but in terms of privacy, fake news, and treatment of online harms too. This crisis exposes that view as the cruel fiction it always was.
The benefits of winner‐takes‐most competition right now are clear. Facebook and Google, in particular, have been providing extensive, easily accessible information about Covid‐19 for users. Both have policed misinformation about the virus with vigour and banned ads suspected of scamming us to buy facemasks and hand sanitiser. Apple’s app store ensures any new applications purporting to help us are legit.
A world of smaller tech companies, without extensive teams to monitor such activities, would find these consumer protection measures near impossible.
Even on privacy, it’s going to be difficult for politicians to accuse Big Tech of “surveillance capitalism” when governments need their data to implement “testing and contact tracing” for economic re‐openings. Indeed, when faced with the choice of continued house arrest or a more tracked life, one suspects user concerns about personal data being used for targeted advertising will plummet.
The truth is Silicon Valley was way ahead of lethargic governments in recognising the severity of this public health crisis, even though it’s a key government function. The major companies cancelled company travel and banned handshakes weeks before western leaders were still bragging about touching hands.
The firms’ business activities adjusted quickly, while the companies donated masks, testing assistance and relief for businesses to help the broader effort.
And who is leading in vaccine development? Why, it’s Big Tech’s favourite son, Microsoft founder Bill Gates. He’s opening seven factories simultaneously to test different vaccines, knowing four or five will be pure money pits, to save time in ending this virus’s terror.
The idea propagated by progressive thinkers that only “the entrepreneurial state” has the incentives and foresight to engage in societally transformative innovation now looks laughable.
For years, Big Tech has been denigrated for all sorts of supposed economic and societal ills, including, bizarrely, lack of innovation. The phrase “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” percolated widely.
Such thinking was always absurd. “But apart from the revolution in supply‐chain logistics, smartphones, encrypted conversations, door‐to‐door minicabs at a couple of clicks, high‐definition video calling, cloud computing, driverless cars and drone R&D, and the sum of human knowledge, music, and videos at your fingertips, what has Big Tech ever done for us?” we might ask, in Monty Python fashion.
This virus though has definitively proven the worth of Big Tech companies and the bankruptcy of the arguments of their detractors. Even when life returns to normal, we should put the crude “reining in Big Tech” agenda straight into the policy dustbin.