NEW GEOGRAPHY--What’s an oligarch to do? The putative tech masters of the universe now face unprecedented criticism from both leftand right. The reasons extend from wanton privacy invasions of the people once described by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerbergas “dumb f***ks” to President Trump’s typically hyperbolic assaults on Amazon’s success at tax avoidance. (Photo above: Jeff Bezos, the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Amazon, purchased the Washington Post in 2013.)
The publicso far still does not disdain the tech oligarchs as they do Wall Street or energy firm but they are clearly threatened, both politically and in their wallets. Their once seemingly unstoppable hold of the capital markets also has started to slip somewhat as investors begin to worry about a potential decline in social media as well as technical failures undermining the value of companies like Uber, Teslaand Snapchat.
Not that the oligarchs will change their ways without coercion. Mark Zuckerberg, amid the uproar, still seems determined to block privacy protections in Californiaor elsewhere. Facebook’s arrogance has even incited tension between the tech overlords, with Apple’s Tim Cookassaulting Mark Zuckerberg for privacy violations. The fact that Cook did this in Beijing, world capital of advanced surveillance, makes the public spanking ever more bizarre.
If you don’t like the media, buy it
Yet even if their net worth drops a bit, the tech oligarchs have more than enough money to subtly change the conversation. One primary way is to buy the financially stressed media, particularly the print side. Tech money in recent years has bought such venerable institutions as the New Republic and, most importantly, the Washington Post, putting the world’s richest man in charge of one of the nation’s most influential newspapers. More recently Laurene Powell, the left-leaningwidow of the late Steve Jobs (net worth $20 billion), has scooped up the Atlantic for a nonprofit that will compete with more traditional competitors who still, sadly, have to make money.
Perhaps most important has been the move by Google, which is also promoting journalism by robots, to invest $300 millioninto subsidizing favored reporters. Given the generally poor conditionof the business, this will be as alluring to many scribblers as a fat beef shank would be to a hungry dog.
Progressives might cheer, but if they are concerned about privacy, consider what the company’s former executive Chairman Eric Schmidtonce told CNBC:”If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
What will be the tech-controlled media agenda?
The oligarch’s leveraged buyout of journalism could shape news in the decades to come. When the equally rapacious moguls of the early 20th century, like the McCormicksof Chicago or William Randolph Hearst, bought papers, they pushed an agenda of imperial expansion, anti-unionism and resistance to those assaulting their fortunes.
Our current crop of moguls also has an ideology — the politics of gentry liberalism. This includes promotion of dense urbanism (although not usually for themselves), open borders and a heaping portion of identity politics. But they, like their forebears, want to keep their money, embracing a quasi-libertarian refusal to address the dangers posed by the concentration of wealth and power, notably their own. To provide a patina of fairness, the oligarchs may try to find allies among libertarian conservativeswho can be counted on to never oppose any malefactor, but conservative views on sensitive social issues, as Kevin D. Williamson just found, can’t go too far off the reservation.
Less room will be provided to anything associated with grassroots-based populism, whether the Trumpian version or that of Bernie Sanders. Jeff Bezos might detest Trump, but recall that in 2016, he turned his guns on Bernie, whose policies might threaten his enormous wealth and corporate power.
The Republic in peril?
Once, the internet seemed to invite expanded access for an ever widening scope for content creators. Now, digitization appears to be hyper-concentrating mediaboth geographically, on the coasts, and through pipelines controlled overwhelminglyby a firms like Facebookand Google. As the Guardianrecently put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”
Ironically, the brouhaha over Russian efforts to influence the election may provide the oligarchs with the license to “curate,” or more accurately censor, views they don’t like. For the most part this censorshipis being carried out under guidance developedlargely by progressive groupslike the Southern Poverty Law Center, which often labels anyone outside its ideological “safe space” as racist bigots. What is considered hateful speech by the politically correct does not have to reflect neo-Nazi or Putin-inspired opinion; meanwhile there have been very few restraints on equally noxious voices on the left.
Ultimately the tech moguls are following the approach described by the late radical social thinker C. Wright Mills: “power elites” remain so by constraining debate in ways that do not threaten their core interests. The oligarchs’ unprecedented wealth, married to new technologies, could help shape the nation’s thinking in ways that represent a direct assault on pluralism and independent journalism. This needs to be recognized and opposed across the ideological spectrum by people committed to both pluralism and independent thought.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism, www.opportunityurbanism.org. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)