The new Too Big To Fail

As one oversized corporate empire crumbles, we’re busy building another

A key lesson in the global financial crisis was the danger of big banks, or so we’re told. When gigantic entities holding vast sums of money make reckless investments, their fall threatens to annihilate broad sectors of the economy - until the government steps in. This conclusion has been dissected endlessly in public by the government, the media and economists. The lessons have been learnt, we’re told, and banks should never again be allowed to invest ordinary savings again in this way.

Yet if the lessons have really been learnt, we seem unwilling to apply them anywhere outside of the spectrum of finance. As we fund, build and even venerate the growth of another entity that’s ‘Too Big To Fail’, our inability to generalise lessons learnt from the financial mess that has defined the last decade is already beginning to harm us - and we’re just as powerless as we were with the banks.

I am, of course, talking about Facebook. As the financial crisis hit, Facebook was still a nascent force, but one that everyone was already investing in - its monthly growth in users around 2008 was roughly 178%. Today, it is one of the behemoths of the technology world, with an enviable 1.1 billion users. Facebook is the platform through which most people have an internet presence; it’s also the default method by which the global middle class ‘keeps in touch’.

Facebook’s dominance is also obviously self-reinforcing. If your entire social circle is on Facebook, there’s no point in you posting videos of your endless attempts to learn ‘Wonderwall’ on Google+. The ridicule of your friends, along with all their photos, messages and status updates, can only be found on one website. So you’re obliged to be a part of Facebook, even if you disapprove of their involvement in a multitude of nasty practices, such as tax avoidance and posting your awkward attempts at flirtation to the NSA.

This makes Facebook, nearly a decade after its foundation, an imposing and dangerous presence. It probably holds the largest collection of personal data in the world, from photos to extremely specific details such as whether a user is ‘currently travelling’ or is ‘living away from family’.

Culturally, Facebook is also a testament to the incredible 21st century faith in the free market. Imagine for a second a ‘Facebook’ run by the government, a nationalised ‘British Social Service’. The idea makes me distinctly uncomfortable; the thought of an amorphous ‘government’ storing all my photos is rather unpleasant. Yet the idea of a Californian corporate monolith holding large swathes of my personal data seems OK, even though it means my information will reside in a country where I have no rights or chance of political representation. Functionally, if the PRISM allegations are true and the American government has automated access to any user’s data, how different is Facebook from a government-run ‘International Social Network’?

More so than we ever did with the banks, we’ve bought into the myth of the gentle technology giants. There’s a long history of (sometimes unjustified) mistrust in finance, built on hundreds of years of its waxing and waning influence on world affairs. The technology companies are newer and friendlier entities, run by young ‘nerds’ who seem less threatening and more involved in apolitical technical engineering. In ‘Zuck’ we trust.

The eternal reality, of course, is that apoliticism is a myth. Google, Facebook et al. have increasingly had to grapple with social and political issues as the need to stay ethical come up against growth expectations. Google decided that it was OK to censor search results in China for a slice of the pie, and Facebook has had to frame a dubious ‘code of morals’ as to what’s permitted on its pages and what’s not. The entire lot of them have been press-ganged into providing on-demand personal data to the American government. In the interests of market share, Zuck, Sergei, and the rest of their merry crew have shown a cynical willingness to push their users under any bus that’s good for business.

As much as any nation-state, we now also belong to corporate sovereigns: Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google. Unfortunately, we have little say in how they are run and ultimately, our own naive enthusiasm is to blame for placing so much of our information where we have no control over it. What’s worse is how completely we have bought into a system where we abide by the arbitrary morals of our new technocratic overlords.

As with the financial crisis, we have to admit our old model of privacy is broken. The ‘Big Four’ are too big, and we are suffering the consequences of their inertia, greed and hubris; PRISM was the complete collapse of the ethical facade they placed around their actions. The parallels between handing over our money to the banks in the hope that they would practice restraint and responsibility and handing over our data to the tech companies expecting the same are two sides of the same coin. Depressingly, just as we continue banking with the same people who plunged our economy into recession, we continue ‘Liking’ and ‘Sharing’ our lives with the people who carelessly trample over any reasonable notion of ‘personal’. Perhaps we haven’t learnt enough from the financial crisis after all.