The Big Tech Backlash; with Lucie Green, by Paul Armstrong


Lucie Greene, author of ‘Silicon States: The Power and Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for Our Future’ recently spoke to a full house at the inaugural ‘Fora Futures’ evening series in the new Borough workspace. 
Greene is the Worldwide Director of The Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson and a renowned futurist. After a rousing introduction where a future of flying fleets of Ubers met the harsh realities that big tech giants hold over employees, Greene introduced a panel of experts including Tracey Follows (CEO of Futuremade), Daljit Singh (Chief Design Officer at ANNA – a Fintech startup) and Jimmy Leach (Founder of Zinzan Digital) before giving out copies of the book.
The panel echoed and went deeper into Greene’s presentation and the themes of ‘Silicon States’, agreeing that, as a society, we are moving into an era where big problems are upon us. A lack of power (and action) on the side of the consumer is part of the problem (but not entirely), neoliberalism is hurting us which, mixed with the general inability of any government to do much of anything meaningful, isn’t going to protect from the issues being caused by the big companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google.  

We sat down with Greene to ask some big questions that arose from the talk and after reading the book.


Fora: Are the new “frontiers” these companies are pushing us to, making the sacrifices worth it?

Things like education, coming up with miracle vaccines and making medical breakthroughs are super exciting, positive and valid. And with dwindling government resources it’s great that money is being ploughed into moon shot possibilities. It’s just that as all research, philanthropy, and innovation become driven by this one sector or group of leaders, so this becomes the only focus – and they get all the credit for transforming our world while many of their companies embrace elaborate tax avoidance schemes. 

No-one is looking at homelessness, the opioid crisis or food poverty. Instead, it is areas of intellectual appeal that are a blank canvas which can be transformed immediately, rather than alleviated.
Fora: Zuckerberg, Musk, Bezos…should CEO’s of these companies be tested/elected publicly somehow?

LG: Governments, except for the European Union, continue failing to crack down on this group. It’s a testament to their strength and dominance that Google was able to avoid the Senate hearings and that Zuckerberg has not appeared in the UK for questioning in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Despite recent widespread criticism of Facebook, these companies continue to survive and thrive (and dominate) because they are incredibly consumer-centric and driven. 
We might criticise Facebook, but [billions of users] are still on Whatsapp and Instagram. The same goes for Uber. Right now, consumers feel like they have a degree of control as these companies are highly responsive to public shaming. [The companies] adjust and respond when they’re shamed publicly by a scandal but whether or not they are making radical systemic changes remains to be seen.  Fora: Which leaves us…?

LG: Many are also talking about alternative forms of government. Musk has described a constant voting system on Mars where every issue is voted on immediately by the populace.  The ultimate consumer/citizen blockchain. But that upturns the idea of having leaders that we have faith in to make decisions with full knowledge of the complexities of a scenario, and the impact of changes. It is also highly short-term and reactionary in approach.

It’s an illusion to think we can totally control forever, even if – as Amazon does – it starts to transcend the power of the state. Governments, while flawed, and slow are at least elected and accountable to the public.

Fora: Transparency is a huge issue right now for these companies – most are failing in some way or another. What can startups and businesses learn from them and where they seem to be heading?

LG: Businesses need to learn that consumers are starting to (if not already) understand the more significant meaning of the ad-based model – that their data is the thing of value and something they’ve now been taught to give away for free services. They have become at once the consumer and the product. As more and more things are connected to the internet and become data points, companies need to develop robust privacy practices and also protection of consumer data from hacking to retain trust. 

We’ve also seen the collective loss of innocence about Terms and Conditions filled with complicated legal jargon. Innovative companies will find a way to streamline this, make it more accessible and give consumers more power.

We can’t avoid technology and the internet – it is life now. But I think we need to engage with these companies in a much more considered clear-eyed way. I also think governments need to too. 

‘Silicon States’ is out now and available on Amazon. For news on the next Fora Futures event, follow us on social.