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To understand what’s happening in the world, we need to understand the (mostly) men who rule over global technology superpowers. But I also wish those leaders were less consequential and took up far less of our brain space.
What the 21st-century tech barons like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Jack Ma believe and do matters. But when we focus on the chief executives, we sometimes neglect to recognize that regular people, not poobahs, make tech as we experience it. Volunteer Wikipedia editors, online community moderators, Uber couriers and schoolteachers translate and shape what the tech bosses create into the lived reality for the rest of us.
My colleagues and I write a lot about the handful of technology companies that shape our communications with one another, shopping habits, relationship with our government, work and culture. Mammoth institutions like tech giants aren’t one-man shows, but the people at the top are extremely influential.
When we talk about the power of tech companies to change the world, what we really mean is the power of Bezos, Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook and Satya Nadella to influence billions of people — whether we (and they) are aware of it or not.
It wasn’t a spreadsheet that decided to pay Amazon employees at least $15 an hour, and influenced wages at other employers. Nothing that momentous happens at Amazon unless Bezos wants it. Zuckerberg designed Facebook with him as absolute ruler, and his beliefs are fused into Facebook’s bones.
If Elon Musk hadn’t pursued his mission to destroy fossil fuels, governments and major car companies probably would not now be planning to kill conventional cars. Conflicting corporate agendas plus personal vendettas between the chief executives of Apple and Facebook, and Amazon and Tesla, are steering the future of the internet and space exploration.
It’s important to understand how these people tick and how their minds work because their decisions matter so much. And humans — even the humans running technology companies — are not robots. All our choices are shaped by who we are, our life experiences and our foibles.
But I also wish that the tech power brokers didn’t matter so much, even at their own companies.
The people who moderate Reddit forums and weed out the worst abuses on Facebook probably understand better than tech C.E.O.s how internet companies’ designs and policies shape our behavior online. Couriers working for delivery apps like DoorDash have more reasons than anyone to poke at the flaws of the software setting their wages. Teenagers creating TikTok dances influence what people do in their living rooms for fun.
Technology bosses don’t always foresee how people will respond to what they create. It is the people in the technology trenches who live the benefits of tech services and their pitfalls, maybe more than the Silicon Valley generals. If they had more influence over the technologies that we use, how might things be different?
It’s essential but insufficient to get into the minds of the tech bosses at the tippy top of the world. As technology worms its way into every moment of our lives, there are zillions of mostly unknown people who take the beliefs and preferences of the bosses and remake them in ways that collectively affect all of us.
We can try to make sense of the world around us by getting in the minds of the leaders. Or we can pay attention to what the foot soldiers of digital life are doing. We need both.
Before we go …
Where extremists can make big bucks: The livestreaming website Twitch has become a place for right-wing personalities to spread conspiracy theories about the election and coronavirus vaccines, my colleague Kellen Browning reported. In some cases, the streamers use the Amazon-owned site as a forum to promote their merchandise or solicit donations.
Lyft is quitting self-driving cars: The company is selling the operation that was working on driverless vehicle technology to a division of Toyota. Uber also handed off its self-driving car project a few months ago.
Are online thrift stores encouraging excess shopping? People who buy secondhand clothing for resale have become a big draw on TikTok, YouTube and the shopping app Depop, Vox reported. But some of the sellers worry that the trend is making used clothing more expensive for people who need it.