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BusinessDay: Digital oligarchy — concentrated tech power imperils our future

Powerful artificial intelligence platforms in the hands of only a few entities can lead to biased, noninclusive algorithms.

By Johan Steyn, 20 September 2023

Tech giants such as Amazon, Google, Meta, Apple, and Microsoft — sometimes referred to as “Big Tech” — hold substantial sway over people globally. These large entities have unparallelled access to user data, which they use for myriad purposes, from targeted advertising to product development.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users was harvested without consent for political advertising, is a telling example of the dangers of the centralisation of technological power.

The development of powerful artificial intelligence (AI) platforms in the hands of only a few entities can lead to biased, noninclusive algorithms. The leader of the “tech oligarchy” without a doubt is Elon Musk. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow recently published a piece in The New Yorker, “Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule”, which delves into his controversial interactions and communications with the Russian government during the Ukraine conflict.

Farrow outlines the timeline of events, noting Musk’s initial support for Ukraine, offering his Starlink technology to Ukrainian officials. However, over time, Musk’s stance seemed to shift, potentially due to economic and diplomatic pressures. He began to communicate messages in line with Russian propaganda and allegedly had direct conversations with Vladimir Putin, though this was later denied. Now there are concerns over Musk’s access to sensitive Starlink data, which could provide real-time insights into Ukrainian troop movements and activities.

Last week, on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, Farrow expanded on concern that Musk seems to be on his own diplomatic mission with the Russians and the Chinese, which are often in conflict with US foreign policy.

What is strikingly evident is how deeply the US government and its related agencies now depend on Musk’s enterprises. This scenario raises important questions about power dynamics, public-private collaboration, and the nature of influence in the 21st century.

Large shadow

The rise of Musk’s influence can be contextualised against a broader backdrop. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant decline in US infrastructure and a waning trust in institutions. Musk astutely identified business opportunities in areas in which the state had retreated due to prolonged privatisation. His ventures, while often celebrated for their innovation, also created a situation in which the government finds itself reactive to Musk’s strategies, initiatives, and, at times, whims.

According to Farrow, officials across departments — be it Nasa, the defence department or the aviation authority — find Musk’s shadow looming large over their operations. One of the most evident symbols of Musk’s influence is in the realm of space exploration. Nasa, once a symbol of American innovation and ambition during the Cold War era, now heavily relies on SpaceX for transporting its crews into space. As SpaceX becomes synonymous with American space aspirations, it is worth reflecting on the implications of having a single civilian company monopolising this crucial capability.

While technology holds the promise to usher in a better future, its unchecked power in the hands of a few is a matter of grave concern. As we advance further into the 21st century, it is imperative to ensure that technology remains a tool for empowerment and progress for all, rather than a means of control for a select few. Proper regulations, decentralised tech solutions, and public awareness are crucial steps in ensuring a balanced technological future.


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