If I was conspiratorially minded, I would believe that Big Tech is out to control every aspect of our lives. I do not engage in conspiracy theories, instead, I recognize that power will exercise its power, and often without regard to the consequences.
In the world today, arguably the biggest power is Big Tech. The European Union recently designated six mega tech corporations as “gatekeeper” services. The decision identifies Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, and ByteDance (TikTok) as providing core platform services and therefore are subject to regulations to mitigate the global dominance wielded by these six mega corporations over people’s access to information.
It’s about Access
Technology is a tool. In and of themselves, tools are neutral; it is how they are used and for what purposes that determine their ethical values. A hammer can be used to build something or destroy something or harm a person.
Technology is frequently touted as tools that will enhance our access to the world. Certainly, it has done that, especially communication technologies. But that doesn’t mean its influences are entirely positive. The corporations behind technologies are, understandably, more interested in the positives of technology. Philosophers aren’t necessarily pessimists, but they do tend to avoid whitewashing the realities of life.
Steam engines, assembly lines, computers, and now apps and social media have each been seen by philosophers as innovations that threaten to come between people and the world. The German idealists. Martin Heidegger, and Marshall McLuhan, among others, have expressed misgivings about the negative effects of technology on human perception and well-being.
McLuhan is one pertinent example. In the 1970s, he predicted bad consequences of communication technologies, saying that the technological medium by which a message is transmitted would become more important that the content of the message — “the medium is the message.” Anyone who didn’t think of social media when they read that sentence is not paying attention.
Social media and smartphone apps are technologies that the gatekeeper mega tech corporations tout as wonderful tools that will enhance our lives. Do they? What access are they actually giving us?
The App Trap
Access to the world is valuable. Being able to find the information you want and communicate with others are priceless commodities. The Big Tech gatekeepers are pushing apps on people for a reason — to make money, obviously, but the apps they give away to smartphone users are traps in two ways.
First is the type of tools that apps are. Give someone a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach someone how to fish and they can feed themselves forever. As an aphorism, it’s a bit trite, but it helps illustrate the issue of who is in control of tools. Knowing how to fish is having possession of a tool that can feed people. If you don’t have access to that tool (or to the fish) you have to rely on someone else.
The Big Tech gatekeeper services aren’t giving you the tools of knowledge; they are giving you a fish and making sure you have to keep coming back each day for more. They tout that they are giving you access to so much, but in reality, they are controlling what access they allow you.
I’m old enough that I remember when the World Wide Web started. Some people nicknamed it the “World Wild West,” because it was a new frontier. Beginning with that blinking cursor in the address bar, you could go anywhere in the world if you knew the URL. Web sites like WebCrawler, Lycos, AltaVista, and AskJeeves were tools that gave you better access to that World on the Web. That was before the Big Tech gatekeeper SERPs of today that feed you search results as dictated by the highest bidder.
That address bar in the Web browser still exists. It still offers the entire World Wide Web if you know that URLs. That freedom is why the Big Tech gatekeepers want to usher you into their apps in which they are in control of your access. They can’t make money off of you typing in your own URLs. They want to keep selling you fish, and they know that if you know how to fish, you don’t need them as much, if at all.
That leads to the second way that apps are traps. More than monetizing search, the Big Tech gatekeeping apps monopolize user attention. The user isn’t in the world, the user is in the app. The app is a tunnel that cuts the user off from the rest of the information space and directs the user along the paths decided by the corporation that owns the app.
This monopolization of the user is more than user engagement to sell ads to the user. The apps are the tools of the Big tech gatekeepers to literally creating dependency in the user. Don’t take my word for it. An app is a tunnel that conditions the user to go to it for access to the world. In other words, the app comes between the person and the world. There is no open gate of an address bar, there is only the app’s feed.
App tunnels direct people down well-worn paths to particular destinations famous for being famous, the app dictating reality rather than the other way around. Granted, these mindless groupies and wannabe influencers are responsible for their lazy thinking rather than turning off the apps and living life, but the Big Tech gatekeepers are responsible for exploiting this human tendency. The mega corporations are manipulating then harvesting user attention for profit. As the adage says: if the product is free, you are the product. No, I’m not paranoid, they are out to get us.
It seems like every major corporation now is pushing you to install and use their app. Advertisements across all media try to lure us into downloading their apps and into their tunnels. Not just social media apps, but search apps, news apps, shopping apps, and so on. To their credit, Wired magazine predicted our current app-dominated dystopia back in 2013, calling it the end of the Web to be supplanted by the livestream. The end of the Web hasn’t entirely happened, but the end of freedom to roam the Web is diminishing.
How far will the app-ocalypse go? How much deeper will the dependency on tools that bind rather than liberate go?
Person: My stomach is grumbling
Big Tech: there’s an app for that
No, there isn’t an app for that, you actually need to eat something. You aren’t dependent on an app to know what is going on in the world. You need to go out into the world.
We are in real danger of raising a generation, if not several generations, of people who are less connected to the world around them than previous generations. The app-driven loss of access to the world is contributing to the general obliviousness of the crises that face us.