Tech Tuesday: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Big Tech?

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Are you worried about how Facebook or Google might be using their information about you? If so, you’ve got company.

According to an IBD/TIPP poll released just yesterday, 89% of us worry that huge tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple will misuse the reams of personal data they collect. Nearly as many (83%) fret that those companies pose a threat to our privacy. And a growing number of users insist that these companies—often collectively referred to as “big tech”—have gotten too big for their gigabyte britches.

And yet these companies grow ever larger. Take Facebook, for example: As we’ve chronicled in our weekly Culture Clips blog, the social media giant has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. Facebook’s gotten in trouble for how it collects data (too much) and for leaking it (too often). The company’s bracing for a multi-billion-dollar fine from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for how it mishandled user data.

But let’s be honest: A $3- to $5-billion fine could probably be paid out of Facebook’s petty cash drawer.

See, even if you took Facebook out of Facebook, its corporate profile and value would still be enormous, given that it owns Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus VR and the video ad company LiveRail. Each of these companies, and loads of others, funnel bits and bytes of our personal data to Facebook—and all that information feeds Facebook’s fortune (courtesy of advertisers that crave that data), allowing it to pay off any new multibillion-dollar fines in its future. Now, the company’s talking about creating its own crypto-currency, which will only bolster its bottom line.

But if most Americans believe that big tech poses a problem, what’s the solution?

Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook, argued in The New York Times, that the company he helped create should be broken up.  Lots of folks in the government agree. Many prominent politicians want to take a hammer to big tech—especially Facebook—and smash it into smaller pieces (divesting it of Instagram, WhatsApp and some of its other holdings, for instance). And if yesterday’s poll is any indication, it just might be a winning issue. According to the survey, 48% of respondents said that the social media behemoth should be broken up—slightly more than the percentage of those who opposed the proposal. Sizable minorities, 45% and 43%, believed Amazon and Google should best be split, too.

Others say that tearing apart these companies like LEGO buildings just wouldn’t work.  Increased regulation, they say, is the key. For Bloomberg, Michael R. Strain writes:

There is a lot of ground between breaking up a company and regulating it. Facebook’s users, and the company itself, might benefit from more regulation, done right. But breaking up one of the most innovative and successful American companies would be a gross abuse of government power. And for nothing.

Issues like this are inherently complex, and I’m in no position to say what should be done with big tech. But I do think the debate around big tech highlights how we, as Christians, should think about it.

The perceived problem with big tech is simply this: It’s too big, too powerful and it knows way too much about us. None of those are particularly new things. You could say the same thing about ancient Rome, really: The Empire that Jesus lived in held a practical monopoly on the known world, and it was arguably at the zenith of its power. It had the power to control a great deal of its citizens’ daily lives.

And so it has always been. Political powers rise and fall. Leaders come and go. Economic titans push us to buy this, go there, consume that. As mortal beings living in a fallen world, we find ourselves under the dominion of a great many competing powers that have the power to coerce or manipulate us. As the bumper stickers remind us, Christians are not of this world: This world—this culture of ours—answers to different masters than we do.

As such, I’m never particularly surprised when the entertainment we watch—even G- and PG-rated bits of entertainment—sometimes runs counter to the values we embrace. The movies and TV shows I watch and review can have value. They can be fun and sometimes teach great lessons. But they’re not made for us. And we should never imagine that Hollywood is our friend. Sometimes we can work with it. But we can’t fully trust it.

And that’s where I think we can get into trouble with big tech: We sometimes imagine that it’s our friend.

Google’s motto used to be, “Don’t be evil.” Facebook’s the place where we talk with Aunt Edna and reconnect with old friends. I own more Apple products than, frankly, I’d care to mention.

But even though these things are designed, in some ways, to serve us, their ultimate masters are … well, themselves. This doesn’t make them evil. But it does mean that we, if we choose to use these products, must do so with caution. We need to be mindful of what our privacy settings are and make sure that we’re comfortable with the amount of information we’re leaking. We must be prudent in how we use these tools—and if they become problems for us or our children, we need to have the strength to walk away or instill stricter guidelines in our homes.

Finally, we should remember that, even if big tech is broken up or regulated, it doesn’t mean we’re all in the clear: Tech is a human creation and, as such, will always be prone to missteps, mistakes and misdeeds.

We must engage with big tech with, as the Bible says, the wisdom of serpents (see Matthew 10:16).

Because if we don’t, the tools themselves might just bite us.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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