I was pretty young when the internet was still a haven for idealists, a place where I posted benign links to MySpace and downloaded music via obscure Blogspot pages. When I started college just before the Great Recession, the web wasn’t yet tangled up with the public personas of its leaders: Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg had just expanded Facebook beyond college dormitories. Engineer Jack Dorsey ran a humble “micro-blog” called Twitter that aimed to become the world’s chatroom. Jeff Bezos was known primarily for hustling books on Amazon, while Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin took their search engine public, with a cheery “don’t be evil” mantra.
Flash forward to 2020, and the tech giants and their leaders have come to dominate public discourse in a way that few other industries have. They’ve unleashed products that are basically indispensable in modern life. But many of the unprecedented conveniences fostered by the last several years of progress have been followed in equal measure by a host of unforeseen digital maladies.
These companies and their leaders, who entered the public sphere with unquestioned promise born of a starstruck media and thirsty venture capitalists, have not provided what they originally sold.
In short order, they erected their own walls throughout the web, turning it into a hyper-capitalist fever dream. Zuckerberg helms one of the planet’s biggest data-mining operations, posing very real threats to democratic processes internationally. Dorsey’s Twitter seems to have little interest in changing its reputation as a refuge for racists and hotbed of misinformation, and it’s never been quite that transparent about what, exactly, constitutes a violation of its terms. Bezos’s Amazon, which paid zero dollars in federal income taxes in 2018, tamps out its workers’ efforts to unionize. Both Google (currently led by CEO Sundar Pichai) and Facebook account for 60 percent of the entire U.S. digital advertising business. Their pseudo monopoly on online ad revenue dictates how media organizations shape their work, and sometimes drives layoffs throughout the industry.
Unlike, say, health insurance and pharmaceutical executives driving up medical costs, or even the titans of Wall Street, tech bosses have become celebrities in their own right. In the face of reports of white nationalist propagandizing on new platforms, smartphone addiction, the collapse of media advertising models, and data mining, we know exactly who to blame for all this. It’s the Tech Industry Villain.
Looking at a fresh-faced Mark Zuckerberg, still a Harvard student, giving interviews on CNBC about Facebook’s launch in 2004, it would have been hard to imagine the CEO sitting before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees in 2018, facing questions about his complicity in one of the greatest digital scandals in history.
Zuckerberg’s apology tour in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal—which saw the personal data of 87 million unwitting Facebook users harvested from an independent app developer and sold to a political consulting firm—was a masterclass in hollow promises to do better. After his Senate testimony, Zuckerberg took out full-page national newspaper ads declaring: “This was a breach of trust and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time.” Since then, however, Facebook has been envelopedin data scandals again and again.
Zuckerberg’s post-Cambridge Analytica mea culpa was an indication of how hard the industry had fallen from its vaunted perch in the zeitgeist as national heroes forging a more efficient, connected new future. But perhaps more importantly, it showed how we’d all been so critically duped: Tech leaders like Zuckerberg emerged out of the post-dot com bubble promising a hopeful new technocracy—and it didn’t take long for that promise to erode entirely. Facebook’s tagline of “it’s free and always will be” suddenly smacked of fatal irony, because we really were paying all along, just with our personal data instead of out of our wallets.
Of course, our once-high regard for tech stars didn’t come from nowhere. The mid-to-late aughts set the circumstances perfectly for ascendant techies to assume the mantle of American enterprise. The housing crash of 2008 soured the public on the financial industry, giving rise to a backlash against Goldman “the great vampire squid” Sachs and the Wall Street architects of credit default swaps. In place of the “greed is good” dictum that fueled the profits and cutthroat culture of ‘80s financial firms, came a bright new class of tech darlings who wore hoodies and rode scooters around their open floor-plan offices—and a media ecosystem ready to plug them into 30 under 30 power lists and splash them across covers.
For any figure who’s come to represent an aspect of tech villainy—whether it’s the rampant inequality plaguing U.S. society, the feudal relationship between gig-workers and their tech overlords, or all the lying and deception that’s come with it—there was a fawning media narrative like this propping them up. Steve Jobs turned product releases into rock concerts, Sheryl Sandberg parlayed her reputation as an executive with a “freakish understanding” of getting results into the feel-good feminist narrative of Lean In.
Elizabeth Holmes was a bonafide cover star for outlets like Fortune and Wired when her blood testing start-up Theranos first hit the scene. Despite skepticism from one of Holmes’s Stanford professors, however, few suspected that the blood-testing machine called Edison might not be a miracle device and that it didn’t actually work. Now Holmes is set for a federal trial on wire fraud charges, owing to the $700 million Theranos raised to fund a venture based on lies.
Uber CEO and founder Travis Kalanick was touted as a ruthless industry titan and orchestrator of a global shift in urban transportation. Forbes lauded his “special sauce, the unifier that explains how Kalanick has driven Uber to become the richest startup in history with a valuation of $68 billion.” It was only a year later, however, that he resigned from his post as CEO following a series of revelations about Uber’s internal office culture, a video of him berating a driver during a discussion about wages, and multiple reports concerning Uber’s spying on drivers and secretly tracking customers. Just months after Kalnick’s reign ended, the New York City taxi industry was rocked by a string of driver suicides. Drivers and advocates cited declining taxi wages fostered by increased competition from Uber and Lyft as a catalyst for the deaths.
Kalanick still made $1.7 billion in selling off his stock—likewise WeWork’s Adam Nuemann reaped a cool $1 billion after his resignation from the co-working empire following its plummeting market cap and cuts to thousands of jobs.
Stories about tech leaders failing upwards and repeatedly abusing public trust are the unifying theme of Silicon Valley’s recent history. They’ve brought us here, to the height of the techlash.
I never viewed the image of the humble coder-turned-CEO like Zuckerberg as the beacon of a new dawn. If anything, his awkward demeanor and casual appearance made him more relatable. I felt that maybe there was a glimmer of altruism in the ambitions of the rapidly ascending tech cohort, even if I viewed their platitudinal jargon about bringing the world together with a grain of salt. In reality, though, the tech world abided more closely to the “move fast and break things” ethos of Facebook’s early developers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this emphasis on growth above all else proved to be destructive in the end.
To the credit of media outlets and venture capitalists, everyone got played for a chump, including me: No one had any idea that Facebook would play unwitting host to a propaganda campaign that helped incite genocide in Myanmar, or that Amazon would take Bezos’s net worth to Lex Luthor levels of opulence while fulfillment center workers pissed in bottles to keep up with the company’s productivity standards. Bezos’s empire affects far more than its worker-bees, too: As the CEO’s net worth climbs ever-higher (currently it’s at $115 billion), brick and mortar retail outlets like Sears, along with those retail jobs, are increasingly a relic of the pre-internet shopping age. That’s no surprise, when considering Amazon Prime subscriptions are now a standard fixture of nearly half of U.S. households.
Silicon Valley would be one of the world’s richest countries if given sovereign borders. It’s currently home to roughly 74 billionaires, and one of the most prominent—Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk—hasn’t engendered any good faith with his Twitter tirades about the media and baseless attacks on a certain “pedo guy.”
It’s easy to hate leaders like Musk and Zuckerberg when they deny responsibility in scandals of their own making, and sometimes even court outrage and dare the public to test them (in the case of Musk). The techlash is the natural outcome of America’s Randian obsession with singular, entrepreneurial heroes like these forming a bubble, and then watching it burst.
Outrage has its own special kind of capital in our epoch’s chaotic digital timeline. Large segments of the public, in both the United States and abroad, have been let down by private institutions that wield inordinate amounts of power—and people are pissed off about it.
It’s defined in generational terms. My millennial generation is old enough to have experienced the rise and fall of Big Tech with complete awareness. The emergence of Democratic Socialism in mainstream U.S. politics, especially among young Americans, can very well be seen as a response to a new class of robber barons, who are often inoculated from their misdeeds as much as everyday people are throttled by them. Right as I graduated high school, companies were emerging that promised to change the world for the better. But many of us entered the workforce burdened with student debt, while tech industry wunderkids who made promises about healing the world became CEOs who hoarded wealth. Instead of job security, we got targeted advertising. And instead of affordable healthcare, we got GoFundMe, while the tech class inched higher and higher in our widening social strata.
I personally don’t harbor visceral anger when thinking of American tech bosses, but every time I fire up an app, or click “read” on a terms and conditions page, I do so with unease. Tech demigods Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were well aware of digital addiction, and limited their own kids’ screen time while still making billions on the public’s growing digital dependence. The Tech Villains have, unequivocally, helped create an online climate in which every click is monitored, every search is monetized, and every phone is a sophisticated surveillance tool. That’s not a world anyone wants to live in, but it’s not like we have a choice.
You thought you successfully avoided ever having to learn how crypto was going to take over your life? Well, too bad: It’s back and maybe stronger than ever.
Originally Appeared on GQ