Digital Citizenship Students

Are we becoming slaves to tech companies like Apple and Facebook?

On the 3rd of November 2017 Apple officially launched the iPhone X, conveniently just in time for Christmas. It is expected that millions of their loyal customers will flock to purchase this latest development in the ‘age of technology’. How else could Apple retain their spot at the top of Forbes rich list than without the support of their loyal customer base? In many ways, tech companies like Apple represent the very essence of what capitalism has become. We make a conscious decision to spend a sizeable amount of our earnings on the latest product released by these companies when in essence, we don’t really need them. It raises the question as to why we do it. Do we do it to signal our own personal wealth? Do we feel that personally we fall behind if we don’t have it? The case has already been made that the growth of these technologies should be monitored and that their effects on society should not be underestimated. Such claims would then be shot down by these tech companies who would make the case that ‘this is the future’ and the future is ‘inevitable’. In the midst of such an argument, where does the ordinary man or woman fall? This blog aims to examine our relationship with these new technologies. It will examine the effects it has on society and what the overall opinion seems to be of the general public as we live in the ‘age of technology’.

To understand the sheer power and influence of the world’s leading technology companies, one could examine the list published by Forbes outlining the world’s leading brands. The top four is comprised solely of technology companies. Apple is regarded as the world’s most valuable brand with a net worth of $170 Billion (Forbes, 2017). Google is in second place with a net worth of $101.8 Billion, Microsoft is in third at $87 Billion while Facebook is in fourth place with a net worth of $73.5 Billion (Forbes, 2017). The influence of these technology companies also seems to be increasing with Apple showing a 10% increase in sales in the last year (Forbes, 2017). Google, Microsoft and Facebook also boasted increases in revenue of 23%, 16% and 40% respectively in the last year (Forbes, 2017). These figures indicate that society is gradually becoming more and more obsessed with technology. We are becoming a society that is becoming more influenced by the oligarch power that is the world’s technology companies. Politicians in Ireland may be slow to criticise such trends in society as this country is home to the European offices of all four of these companies. The boost that this provides for Ireland, a country that is overly dependent on foreign direct investment, is invaluable. Apple’s Cork base alone employs 4,000 people with a further 2,500 employed in the local area (Weckler, 2014). In fact, 25% of Apple’s European workforce is located in Ireland (Weckler, 2014). The proposed expansion of Apple’s offices to Athenry would create a massive jobs boost for the West of Ireland. When discussing the influence of technology companies on the economy and society, Ireland is a prime example. Their influence even extends to government where a recent European Commission report concluded that Apple had underpaid taxes to the Irish government. Such an agreement from the government and Apple seemed to have been made on the understanding that Apple would continue to expand and invest in the Irish economy. Some might view this as deceitful and corrupt while others might view it as ‘good economics’. After all, Apple is by far the world’s most powerful company with a brand revenue of $214.2 Billion (Forbes, 2017). Their nearest rival is Google with a brand revenue of $3.9 Billion (Forbes, 2017). When considering the growth and influence of these technology companies, their sheer power and influence on the world’s economy cannot be denied.

Part of the reason we may marvel at the feet of such leading technology giants is that as a society, most people would believe that we are truly living in the age of technology. Never before has there been a society more advanced than ours. In one respect, that may be true but many would question just how ground-breaking inventions such as our iPhones really are. Egan (2017) argues that with every advancement of the written word through history with innovations such as the printing press, humankind has also advanced. Yet in the case of the iPhone, the only ‘advancement’ that we have seen so far is that we have lost the art of daydreaming (Egan, 2017). Just how a revolutionary an innovation may be can be measured by how slow society is to adapt to it (Farnham Street, 2017).  In the case of the printing press and the telegraph, society was slow to accept such inventions as their purpose almost seemed impossible (Farnham Street, 2017). Can the same be said for the iPhone or the internet? Was society slow to accept them? Many people, particularly those born in the twenty-first century, would struggle to imagine a life without the internet or indeed immediate access to a smartphone. Perhaps we regard the internet as such an extraordinary invention because we simply could not imagine life without it. We may mistakenly assume that things we now do through the internet or through an iPhone could not have been done another way (Shapin, 2007). Shapin (2007) argues that this tends to make society exaggerate the impact of such technological innovations. The next time Apple release a ‘ground- breaking innovation in technology’, the authenticity of such a statement should be questioned.

The rise in power of technology giants in recent years represents the shift of western societies towards a more consumerist mind-set. Therefore it may be said that the growth of these companies is an ideal realm for an academic to study gross inequalities that exist in the world. Indeed it is a sad reflection of a world where western societies have become obsessed with consumerism and always having the latest must-have products while other societies cannot guarantee their citizens basic human rights such as food and shelter. Gay (1996) claims, “As consumers, people are encouraged to shape their lives by the use of their purchasing power and to make sense of their existence by exercising their freedom to choose in a market in which one simultaneously purchases products and services, and assembles, manages and markets oneself” . In the context of today’s world, market giants like Apple represent the pinnacle that many western consumers aspire to. Owning an Apple product is a way in which one’s identity, value and place in society can be identified. Whether you see this as a good development in society or not, the blame cannot be placed at the feet of today’s consumers. Society has constantly been developing more towards consumerism. Stearns (2001) claims that since the eighteenth century, the arguments proposing consumerism have outweighed those opposed to it in western societies.  Consumerism has constantly been on the rise with its only major challenge coming with the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany (Stearns, 2001). Once this fascist regime was defeated, it seemed to justify in western ideologies that consumerism was the way forward. Consequently, this may have prompted the growth of globalisation and multinationals (Stearns, 2001). Therefore it may be said that the rise of companies such as Apple and Facebook could be seen coming long before they had arrived. In a world that is becoming smaller with the growth of communications, was the rise of these companies inevitable?

Perhaps human nature’s most powerful tool is time. Over time, society as a whole has grown and developed. We’ve become more diverse, more educated and more accepting. Technology too has come a long way over time. However, a common mistake we tend to often make is that we automatically assume that the latest inventions in technology will improve society. We rarely analyse the potential effects such developments could have. Such questioning should be done in the case of the smartphone. Alaimo (2017) argues that as a society, we are less engaged with what is going on around us and instead are becoming more focused with the pixels on the screen of an iPhone. We are potentially raising a generation in which constant validation is required through the medium of ‘likes’ (Alaimo, 2017). Alaimo makes a particularly compelling argument here. Most people in western societies will have witnessed or perhaps experienced the sight of someone engrossed in an iPhone while completely ignoring their friends or family around them. Has this development improved society? Alaimo (2017) also makes the point that we are constantly expected to be available for work regardless of the time or place. Since Wi-Fi was introduced to airplanes, the spaces and times when it’s appropriate to be offline are diminishing. With instant access to our emails, we are constantly expected to be contactable. Some would say this is efficient while others would argue it has killed the art of simply being able to ‘relax’. It has also in many ways has released an army of online trolls responsible for fraud and the reasonably new problem, cyber-bullying. Apple also recently discussed the inevitable phenomenon known as ‘artificial intelligence’. While arguing that this is the future, they seem to take total disregard of the fact that such an invention would leave millions of people worldwide without a job (Manjoo, 2017). Manjoo (2017) also argues that such inventions would take tech companies like Apple to positions of power never before experienced by any single company. Does this leave the door open to more corporate control of society? This level of control could also lead to economic problems such as the wealth gap being bigger than ever before. While most people love seeing such impressive technological developments, is it time that we just slow down and take account of what society really needs in the present moment?

The purpose of this blog was to examine the potential dangers associated with the oligarch powers that are the world’s leading technology companies and the influence their products are having on society. Yet despite the fact that so many of us are aware of their negative effects on society, it still doesn’t defer us from purchasing such products. Have we as a society even realised how reliant we are becoming on such companies’ influence? Is it because of the power and wealth they have to seductively market and advertise themselves that society as a whole doesn’t seem concerned at the increasing rate of influence they have over our economy? Druckman (2011) claims that “the success of any emergent technology depends in large part on public acceptance”. Apple is one of the world’s most powerful technology companies. Therefore, within society, they must have been accepted. They have become a part of society. Despite the concerns some may have for their emergence, it seems that as a whole, society doesn’t care. Society is willing to accept these technologies as the outstanding opinion seems to be that the benefits of such inventions outweigh the consequences. Scholars have developed fields of study that explore how citizens perceive the risks associated with new technology. Such studies include the ‘Committee on Risk Perception and Communication, 1989.’ Consequently, it may not be a case that the public is unaware of the consequences of such innovations but rather we just choose to ignore them. Where is this leading us in the future? As previously mentioned, governments have already began large scale investment in the area of Artificial Intelligence. In years to come, robots could be the centre of all of our societies. When do we draw the line? When will there be enough technology? Is Artificial Intelligence something we actually need? The way the world’s economy is currently moving along with public trends, it seems the power of the world’s tech companies will not be slowing down. To stay ahead of their rivals, companies like Apple must constantly be innovative in their ideas. In their eyes, a world of technology is the way forward. ‘This is the future’ they’ll say and whether we like it or not, they may be right.

References

  • Alaimo, K. (2017) 7 Ways the iPhone has made Life worse. [online] CNN Tech. Accessed 6th November 2017.
  • Druckman, N. (2011) Framing, Motivated Reasoning and Opinions about Emergent Technologies. Journal of Communication. 61(4).
  • Egan, T. (2017) The Phone is Smart but Where’s the Big Idea? [online]. New York: The New York Times Opinion Pages. Accessed 2nd November 2017.
  • Farnham Street (2017) Why the Printing Press and the Telegraph were as Impactful as the Internet. [online]. Ottawa. Accessed 4th November 2017.
  • Forbes (2017) The World’s Most Valuable Brands [online]. New Jersey: Forbes. Accessed 29th October 2017.
  • Gay, P.  (1995) Consumption and Identity at Work.  Copenhagen: Sage.
  • Manjoo, F. (2017) Why tech is Starting to make me Uneasy. [online] New York: The New York Times. Accessed 6th November 2017.
  • Shapin, S. (2007) What Else is New? [online]. New   York: The New Yorker. Accessed 4th November 2017.
  • Stearns, P. (2001) Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire. Jstor.
  • Weckler, A. (2014) 25pc of Apple’s European Workforce Based in Cork. The Irish Independent, August 6.

Odhran Whelehan is currently an undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway

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