Tech Companies; The New Digital Patriarchs

We want to offer an original critique of The New Digital Patriarchs (the billionaire founders of US tech companies), addressing their collective power, influence, and ideology, their dynamics, and the role they play in the wider sociocultural, financial and political formations of digital capitalism.

After Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election, one of the first things he did was to invite the founders and chief executive officers (CEOs) of tech companies to Trump Tower for a summit (see Figure 0.1).

In the room were some of the most vocal opponents to his presidency and policy platform from within the ranks of the power brokers of American capitalism. Trump was deferential and flattering – ‘There’s no-one like you in the world’ – and, in an attempt to echo the iconoclastic ideology of Silicon Valley, he insisted that there was no hierarchy in his administration. He told his visitors that his door was open: he was ‘here to help [them] do well’ (Streitfeld 2016).

Around the table were the CEOs, chief operating officers (COOs), and founders of technology firms: among them the five most valuable companies in the world: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet-Google, and Facebook (Cardenal 2016). Also present were executives from Palantir (whose co-founder Peter Thiel brokered the meeting), Oracle, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Cisco Systems, and Intel (Sonnad 2016). That this happened so fast and was inclusive of so many senior figures within the tech industry is quite remarkable.

As a sector, technology companies, founders, and workers had thrown more money at Democrats during the 2016 election campaign – and progressive Democrats at that – than at Republicans.

In the Democrat primaries it had been ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders who had been the largest beneficiary of tech workers’ financial support; and in the election itself, donations to the Democrats’ candidate, Hillary Clinton, from voters in California’s Silicon Valley, the physical home to much of the tech industry, were 60 times the level of donations given to Trump (Levy 2016).

The meeting was thus a performance of political pragmatism, by both the incoming president and the leading fgures of an industry that has been hailed in the middle-brow and technology press as ‘the #resistance’ to Trump’s administration (Smiley 2017; Vara 2017; Tarnoff 2017).

Trump Tech Summit 2016 (Tesla/SpaceX’s Elon Musk is just out of shot to the right)
Trump Tech Summit 2016 (Tesla/SpaceX’s Elon Musk is just out of shot to the right)

The political tensions that were suppressed to allow for the production of the image in Figure 0.1 were soon to become visible through the actions of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Space X, and a founder of PayPal (who was present at the meeting but not in the photo). Musk had originally threatened to move to China if Trump was elected, but in the end he joined one of Trump’s advisory committees, persuaded by Peter Thiel, his fellow PayPal founder and a presidential supporter and advisor. But this presented a particular problem for Musk, whose celebrity persona is closely bound up with environmentalism.

As is the case for many leaders of tech companies, Musk depends on celebrity as the primary driver of corporate publicity, in a trend that can be traced back to iconic Apple founder, the late Steve Jobs. Marketing for these companies has – in their beginnings at least – depended on the myth of the legendary founder: a young (white, male) genius capable of producing new products that change the world. And these founder identities have been closely bound up with the identities of the companies themselves.

Musk’s celebrity persona of a messianic environmentalist clashed with his more pragmatic concerns: his business’s dependence on government contracts for rocket launches (Space X) and occasionally the need for state subsidy (as in the early stages of Tesla). Hence his need to cosy up to the president. In the end the circle was too hard to square.

When Trump pulled America out of the Paris Climate Accord, Musk quit his advisory role in protest (Koren 2017). Maintaining a consistent public image, for Musk, trumped direct political influence as a means to promote his corporate agenda. There were, of course, many other tensions among the participants, but for most of them the opportunity to be at the top table was decisive.

While the meeting included some of the most powerful people in America, missing from the picture is Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder and CEO has been declared by political theorist David Runciman to be an even bigger threat to democracy than Trump, partly because his company is seen to undermine the state itself (and also to indirectly contribute to the election of figures like Trump (Runciman 2018, 138–139)). Zuckerberg’s responsibility for Trump’s election is hard to quantify, but certainly Facebook was used ruthlessly by the Trump campaign, which had embedded Facebook staffers – something that was absent from the Democrat campaign (a strategic error it turns out: see Bartlett 2018).

As the youngest of all these entrepreneurs by a small stretch, Zuckerberg most closely conforms to the general stereotype of the boy-genius founder and thus bears the weight of being a signifcant cultural icon as well as a business leader. He is also, perhaps, the person who has most suffered the brunt of the so-called ‘Tech-lash’ – the reaction against tech companies in the years following this auspicious meeting that has spelled the end of their positive public image even as their wealth and influence has grown (Foroohar 2018).

It was possibly a sign of Zuckerberg’s potential political aspirations, rather than any broader consideration, that led to his absence from the meeting. Instead, he sent as his surrogate Sheryl Sandberg, one of only four women out of the 21 people present at the table – the others being the president-elect’s daughter Ivanka Trump, Oracle CEO Safra Katz, and Ginni Romety, CEO of IBM.

Given Trump’s usual implacable and relentless demonisation of opponents, this photo opportunity struck us as an exceptional moment. It indicated that this industry, in the unified form it presented at this meeting, was not an enemy that Trump could hope to overcome – or at least, not at a cost that made it worth it.

For us, this picture put into sharp relief a series of emerging research questions on the people who run the tech companies that have risen to prominence since the financial crash of 2008.

Who are these people that President Trump would so graciously and urgently court them? Why would he rehearse their language and invite them into his circles? Where does their power lie, how do they justify accumulating it, and for what ends do they wield it? More directly, why are they almost all white men? The answers to these questions are extensive and complex, bound up as they are with wider social, cultural, and economic processes.

So in this book, we investigate these men by analyzing their celebrity biographies: the best material for research we could find that addresses that complexity from multiple perspectives. Thus, the image makes visible a group that represents a powerful industry that is ushering in a new era of ‘data colonialism’ (Couldry and Mejias 2019) and ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2019). These ideas describe, differently but with clear overlap, how digital technologies have introduced a new economic paradigm that is shaping social relations. That is how everyday life is surveilled or colonised by large technology companies for economic exploitation.

And it is not yet clear what the social and political consequences of that will be. For Shoshana Zuboff it is the corporate penetration of the intimate sanctum of domestic life; for Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias it is a repetition in new form of capitalism’s worst imperial impulses seizing the ‘space of subjectivity’ from us without asking permission (171). For all these writers, democratic accountability is worryingly absent from this socio-economic arrangement. But this new economic order also brings into view a highly motivated and active network of men that dominates it – and that we should understand them as such is one of our key research findings.

These are powerful individuals at the head of seemingly unassailable monopolistic corporations, and their network makes them an even more powerful collective social actor (Moore and Tambini 2018; Gilbert 2019). In short, these figures have benefited from, and contributed to – to an extraordinary degree – the full-spectrum social, cultural, economic, and political shift that is currently transforming the world.

These new forms of power have led us to contextualize our research through a periodisation of ‘digital capitalism’: our way of understanding the present as marked by the 2008 financial crash, which can be seen as a tipping point in the transition to a new era. The crash opened the door to intensified collaboration between West Coast tech companies and the finance industry, with tech becoming the dominant partner in this new hegemonic bloc (Gilbert and Williams 2018).

We see this period as being characterised by: the imbrication of data processes in all forms of economic activity (Zuboff 2019); the funnelling of capital from public welfare into a financialised platform society (van Dijck et al. 2018); and an increasingly casualised workforce legitimated through the branding of entrepreneurialism, choice, and control (Jarrett 2016). The scholars listed above (alongside others) have made considerable progress in understanding the nature of the socio-economic shift to this new set of social arrangements, and we draw on their work in this book.

But our focus is on the network of founders itself: how they maintain their influence, how they justify it, and what cultural resources they use to explain and propagate their wealth and power. Our aim is to identify and track connections between the tech oligarchs, and in particular to map their networks of ideas, people, and practices through how they are mediatised and narrativised.

This makes our project different from traditional political science books like Billionaires and Stealth Politics (Page et al. 2019), where the authors are trying to fathom the ideological orientation of American billionaires and their concrete political activities. We make no such attempt: we approach our research with an understanding, informed by our background in media and cultural studies, that we will never access these men in such a way as to be able to assess their politics directly. We recognize that even a face-to-face interview with the subjects of our research would take place within the remit of corporate public relations activity (see also James 2018).

Our approach is nevertheless case-study based. Our aim in studying selected fgures from the industry is to develop an understanding of their mythic narrative biographies and celebrity personae, which are an important element of their corporate strategies. Our chosen subjects are Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Elon Musk, around each of whom we base a our selection is also significant.

Why not include eBay’s Meg Whitman or disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes? we have been asked. But Whitman did not found eBay and Holmes has been exposed as a fraudster who used the hype surrounding tech founders to generate great wealth, but without a product that actually worked (Carreyou 2018). Similarly, the other women around the table in the photograph are not founders, but appointed CEOs.

They are not as wealthy, as successful, or as famous as the founders we analyses here. Indeed, there are no female founders operating at the scale of the men in the network we have identified. This is connected to a core quality of the network, which was immediately apparent from the beginning – the subaltern role of women within it. A central aim of this book is to understand more fully the gendered nature of the network.

Within this patriarchal world, women are permitted some roles, but not Others. To explore the mechanics of this, at both a practical and ideological level, we have included Sheryl Sandberg as the subject of a case study, due to her obvious influence, and in recognition of the importance of looking at the interaction of the industry’s most high-profile woman within the broader phenomena we are investigating.

Sandberg’s writing and career help us to make sense of how women are able to participate in and benefit from an elite patriarchal structure – through negotiating the cultural norms in terms of gender relations, and striking bargains to secure a place in its hierarchies.

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