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Do Tech Slogans Really ‘Make the World a Better Place’?

The simple deception of Big Tech’s aspirations

Maria Farrell
Dec 4, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Josh Couch

Bringing people together.

Changing the world.

Making the world a better place.

There’s a reason so many tech company slogans sound similar. It’s not just that they’re all trying to do the same thing — commodify human experience, sell it back to us, and pipe the tax-free profits offshore. It’s that the smooth straplines all work so hard to draw our attention away from that. But Big Tech’s cheery slogans reveal more than they mean to.

It’s late 2018. We’ve all reread our Hannah Arendt. We know organizations with totalizing worldviews love slogans that contain their own opposites. It’s all part of the wacky hall of disinformation mirrors we live in now, laughing knowingly at our own manipulation. So, sure, work will set you free. (And “never again” will we use corporate data-gathering to help states fatally abuse their power. Except we already are.) The world’s information can and should be “organized.” Go ahead and “broadcast yourself”; it’s not like we need reporters or actual facts. And just because its mission to “bring the world closer together” helps drive inequality and extremism, why panic at the chilling claim on Facebook’s office posters that “this journey is 1% finished”?

The best corporate slogans are aspirational but also express something of the firm’s basic identity. Sometimes they’re a simple riposte, a punchline we remember long after the setup’s been forgotten. Apple’s 1997 “think different” was partly a response to IBM’s “think (itself a distant descendant of Descarte’s “I think, therefore I am”). “Think different” set out Apple’s stall as the computer for creatives and educators, tapping their instinctive feeling that they were not the corporate peons of the IBM borg. The slogan was rolled out the year Steve Jobs was reinstated as CEO and relaunched Apple by reverting to its original outsider identity. (While the slogan has long since been retired, Tim Cook recently referenced Apple’s almost genetic distrust of authority in his speech to European data regulators, implying he’s on the side of people in a way Google and Facebook are not.)

These days, tech slogans are openly paradoxical — equal parts Stakhanovite exhortation and corporate elision.

“Think different,” with its slightly jarring use of an adjective where an adverb is called for, has just the right little barb to stop it from going down too smoothly. So many tech firms get this wrong, with wholly forgettable and interchangeable slogans that fail to rub our imaginations just a little against the grain. (Though go too far with grammatical or semantic weirdness, and you end up with Time Warner’s comical “enjoy better,” Melania Trump’s vacuous “be best,” or Adidas’ operatically strained “impossible is nothing,” with its own subliminal callout to “resistance is futile.”)

These days, tech slogans are openly paradoxical—equal parts Stakhanovite exhortation and corporate elision. Amazon’s strapline for employees is “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” The “work hard” bit is accurate. Some employees pee in bottles so they can make their numbers. Others live in tents. Having fun? Not so much. Though a certain type of person may enjoy having state after U.S. state plead and promise sweetheart laws and financial inducements (which are not, apparently, graft and fraud?) to host “HQ2.” The “make history” bit? Sure. Playing a pivotal role in ending the postwar social contract by hollowing out public services and shutting down entire industries is historic. So is just one human amassing unprecedentedly huge piles of money, though I’m not sure I’d boast about it.

Slogans that sound cute when you’re a couple of bros working in a friend’s garage can bite back when you’re a global company with huge, unacknowledged power. Think of Google’s famous “don’t be evil,” featured in its 2004 IPO prospectus. “Don’t be evil” was already weaker than it first sounds. Its mildly ironic overstatement — don’t be the villain, dude — is centered on not thinking of yourself as evil, a much lower bar than not actually doing evil. Love the sinner, hate the sin and all that, but when a company repeatedly backtracks on its privacy promises, aggressively avoids tax and, oh yes, basically killed journalism, its quasi-jokey mantra starts to sound tin-eared. When Google was called in front of a U.K. parliamentary committee in 2013, its local rep was savaged for his company’s “calculated and unethical” tax avoidance, which the committee chair insisted did indeed do evil. The mantra was quickly retired and replaced with the even weaker “do the right thing.”

Tech firms often switch to blander, more corporate sentiments when they expand, go public, or move into new product lines. Airbnb’s slogan used to be “travel like a human.” It expressed something true. Back when I used to rack up 100,000 miles a year, moving via town cars between international airports and interchangeable hotel chains, I felt more like a carefully tended package than a person. I sometimes used Airbnb to feel more, well, human. Shivering in an unheated Buenos Aires home in winter and peeing into a bucket in an illegal Istanbul “apartment” (actually an unused office, it turned out), I definitely felt the frailties of our shared existence. But hey, I was living like a local.

“Changing the world” is obligatory but in practice happens only within strikingly narrow parameters.

In 2014, “travel like a human” was replaced by “belong anywhere.” Airbnb’s CEO, responding to the company’s rapid growth, said: “[P]eople thought Airbnb was about renting houses. But really, we’re about home. You see, a house is just a space, but a home is where you belong.”

Except you can’t “belong anywhere.” Belonging isn’t for sale, or even, though it’s the Airbnb business model, for rent. Not only can you not “belong” somewhere you booked a room for a weekend, but you’re also driving up prices, so the people who do belong can’t afford to live there. “Belonging” at scale hollows out real communities, drives illegal businesses like the one I encountered in Istanbul, and costs hotel jobs.

You can belong to only a couple of places in your whole life. Of course you don’t belong somewhere by purchasing a micro-sublet. Belonging is the opposite of anywhere, but there those words are, forced together by a cheap slogan but pulling apart like two equally charged magnets. But we know this. We know the slogans aren’t true, yet we suspend our disbelief to buy the very product we know kills the thing we love. Why solely blame Big Tech for feeding us comforting lies we can’t gobble up fast enough?

Once you unpack them a little, what’s striking is that behind many tech firms’ grandiose claims to “change the world” is the paucity of ambition and imagination. “Changing the world” is obligatory but in practice happens only within strikingly narrow parameters. Think about it. If you really wanted to “change the world,” would you a) come up with new ways for venture capital to asset-strip public transport or drive down wages, or b) figure out how to get clean water to everyone or maybe even make it so that fewer men rape women and girls? One of these things does stuff companies do already and just concentrates capital a little more intensively. The others would be genuinely transformative for the whole goddamn world.

Nonetheless, “make the world a better place” (for whom is never spelled out) is one of the most common slogans there is. DeepMind, Google/Alphabet’s U.K. artificial intelligence company, is resolved to “solve intelligence, use it to make the world a better place.”

London street artists “subvertise” Facebook’s recent campaign.

The first part is both specific and revealing: “Solve intelligence.” For A.I. types, intelligence — more ambitiously, artificial general intelligence (AGI) — is a problem that must be solved to make software that computationally approximates organic intelligence. It’s the holy grail. But seeing AGI as a puzzle or problem that needs a solution, rather than an emergent property of unimaginably complex and interdependent conscious and unconscious evolutionary systems, just might be a bit limiting. “Solving” intelligence is the kind of goal you have when you think quickly running through lots of models is the same as having an imagination. “Solving” intelligence — a “problem” that must be fixed with unconsented personal data — leaves things like imagination, creativity, and conscience trampled in the bean counters’ stampede.

Why can’t powerful organizations seem to avoid slogans that are actually quite chilling? Partly because language is multivalent, and meanings multiply. But the all too evident Jekyll and Hyde interpretations of these slogans suggest their shadow meanings may reflect some unconscious intent of their owners.

Google knows that organizing all the world’s information is creepy as hell. But it is driven to keep trying, whatever the cost. The slogan simply makes visible the company’s DNA. Facebook knew long before 2016 that “giv(ing) people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” only makes sense if you think “community” means herding people into ever-smaller filter bubbles to be data-stripped and manipulated. Sure, the company sometimes rolls back abuses or goes on apology tours, but it cannot stop doing what it does, fulfilling its fundamental drive to herd and strip, herd and strip. Dammit, but Facebook will go on the rest of its journey, all 99 percent of it, no matter how terrifying that is both to them and to us.

“Move fast and break things,” Facebook’s now-retired internal slogan, seemed pretty fetch in the days before the company broke democracy. But thanks to Big Tech itself, corporate slogans are no longer broadcast-only; they’re just the opening line in an often tetchy conversation. Last month in Brussels, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Butarelli suggested a new approach to the internet: “Move slowly and fix things.” Sometimes the Empire really does strike back, and it turns out your lovable insurgents were actually the bad guys all along.

Irish writer based in London. Tech policy, possible futures, politics. @mariafarrell http://www.crookedtimber.org

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