The Age of Big Tech Is the New Age of Monopoly | Opinion

The following essay is an excerpt adapted from Sen. Josh Hawley's new book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, out now from Regnery.

When Facebook went public in May of 2012 in what was billed as the initial public offering of the decade—the century!—the company dutifully filed a dutifully boring piece of paperwork known as the Form S-1 registration statement, a compendium of facts and figures, summaries and disclosures, a "risk factors" analysis, "selected consolidated financial data," "description of capital stock" and so on and so forth. Except this Form S-1 wasn't boring in the least. This Form S-1 was positively fascinating. This Form S-1 included a thesis statement direct from Big Tech on the new world the technologists hoped to create. It included a letter from Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg had put pen to paper (so to speak) and in the span of four brief pages, attempted to explain to the vast public just what was before them in this dawning Age of Tech. For the world stood again on the precipice of transformation, Zuckerberg wrote, a transformation as profound as the one occasioned by the arrival of the printing press centuries before. That earlier technology "led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society," Zuckerberg said. And now "our society has reached another tipping point." That's where Facebook came in. "Facebook was not originally created to be a company" at all. Rather: "It was built to accomplish a social mission..."

The ambition fairly leapt off the page. Like the corporate barons of the Gilded Age, Zuckerberg and his fellow technologists aimed at nothing less than the remodeling of American life. Past technologies and their inventors had "changed the way society was organized," Zuckerberg wrote. Now Facebook would do the same. And this renovation would be achieved by the advent of a new kind of economy, an information economy, built on (supposedly) the free flow of data. Tech would lead the way. It would make the country—indeed, the world—"more open and connected." It would leverage the wide availability of the internet and mobile platforms to create an economy of "authentic businesses" built on "personalized" designs and products. It would deliver a "more open culture," "better understanding" between citizens and "expos[ure] to a greater number of diverse perspectives." And all this would be done with data—massive amounts of data gathered from ordinary citizens and analyzed by the supercomputers at Facebook: data so prodigious one would need miles of computer servers to contain it, yielding analysis so precise that it could predict what consumers would want before even they knew it. This was the future, an economy and society based around data and those who controlled it—namely, Facebook and the other avatars of Big Tech.

Zuckerberg spoke of change, a fresh departure from the past, but in fact his pitch was the climax of the revolution his robber baron predecessors had initiated a century before. It was the climax of corporate liberalism. The grand future Zuckerberg envisaged was a future controlled by the few companies sufficiently large and powerful to collect massive amounts of information from consumers and put it to use. It was a future organized around the priorities of the cosmopolitan professional class: "openness" and "connection." In a later letter to Facebook users and employees, Zuckerberg spoke of building a "global community." The 21st-century corporate elite hail global integration—social, political and economic—as the great engine of progress. They prize transnational ties over any distinctly American identity, and the new society they want to build reflects their globalist preferences.

Social media apps on iPhone
Social media apps on iPhone screen Chesnot/Getty Images

Given the business scale required to succeed at the massive data extraction and control that the Big Tech agenda required, the companies that managed it would almost by definition become monopolies. In the words of technologist Jaron Lanier, "large, highly automated businesses" built around prodigious data collection "can't help but present some of the problems of monopolies." The Age of Big Tech, like the age of the robber barons, would be the age of monopoly.

And it would be the age of addiction. Zuckerberg promised that Facebook would hasten the arrival of a better America by putting more information into the hands of more people than ever before. In fact, the truly transformative thing about Big Tech was its business model. Big Tech treated its users as sources of information to be mined and as objects to be manipulated. And the key to both was attention. Big Tech needed as many Americans online as possible for as long as possible, all in order to extract their personal data and manipulate them into buying the wares of Big Tech's advertisers. Far from empowering ordinary people, Big Tech assaulted their agency and undermined their independence. By design. This model doubled down on the legacy of last century's corporatists: elevating an ever-narrower group of professionals at the expense of ordinary citizens, consolidating power—and now information—in the hands of a few.

But there was no need to look too closely at what precisely Big Tech was about because, according to Zuckerberg, the reign of Big Tech would bring the people more of what every American wanted: liberty!—where liberty meant private, personal choice. This rhetoric, too, sounded in the cadences of corporate liberalism. "Think about what people are doing on Facebook today," Zuckerberg had enthused before the company went public. "They're keeping up with their friends and family, but they're also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand." It was Woodrow Wilson's language of self-development transposed into a 21st-century key. Facebook would empower individuals to create—their own image, their own identity, their own personhood. More choice! More liberty! Yet in this version of corporate liberalism, as in the earlier one, the corporate elite and the professional class would be the ones with the power.

Big Tech was the robber barons' dreams realized; it was corporate liberalism's triumph. And while Zuckerberg was perhaps Big Tech's most avid evangelist, the other tech platforms shared Facebook's transformative aspirations and trafficked in the same soaring, Wilsonian rhetoric. Explaining why people used its famous search platform, Google opined that many searched "to fulfill the need for ongoing personal growth," still others to "develop and reinforce a sense of identity." This, Google attested solemnly, "is a powerful, emotional payoff of search." Search queries on the internet could be a portal to self-fulfillment.

But if the key to the earlier corporatists' ambitions was their elevation of the giant, hierarchical monopoly, the key to Big Tech's plans was the business model of data extraction. In the words again of technologist Jaron Lanier, "The primary business of digital networking has come to be the creation of ultra-secret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power." This was the new economy Big Tech would give America, and it depended centrally on capturing and controlling Americans' attention.

Josh Hawley is a U.S. senator for Missouri, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the author of the new bestselling book, The Tyranny of Big Tech.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.