During the lockdowns that swept the world, caused by the COVID 19 pandemic, the internet became our supermarket, our school, our gym, our club, our cafe. And Big Tech reaped the benefits of this. While restaurants closed their doors and cultural programming halted to a standstill, the wealth and power of tech billionaires only grew. In the last year, the five tech superpowers—Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook—had combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion. The pandemic accelerated many societal shifts, but what impact did it have on the monopolisation of Big Tech?
This summer, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reported that quarterly sales and profits had surged to record highs—largely due to an increase in spending on online advertising aimed at customers who were stuck at home shopping. YouTube also saw its advertising revenue almost double from the year before, to $7bn. This was due to a rising tide of online activity in many parts around the world. What effects will this increasing saturation of online advertising, infiltrating our work, social, and educational spaces, have on our mental health?
At the beginning of the pandemic, Naomi Klein introduced the concept of the ‘Screen New Deal’ (a pandemic shock doctrine)—arguing that many of the concerns that were emerging about Big Tech, and its ceaseless infiltration into all spheres of life (education, transportation, health) were being swept under the rug. The technological and integrated futures these companies were trying to sell us were being re-sold under the branding that they will help us live a pandemic-proof, no-touch, life. Klein writes that “[i]t’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.” But how have we changed how we interact with digital technologies and what personal information are we willing to give away in the name of public health and safety?
In this online dossier we’ll look back and reflect on the pandemic and how it accelerated our entanglement with, and deep reliance on, Big Tech. Guus Hoeberechts examines our online behaviours and asks us to rethink the ways in which we interact on social media. For our image contribution, researchers Giselinde Kuipers and Mark Boukes trace the global humour cycle of the pandemic through memes. And Guus Hoeberechts interviews researcher Marjolein Lanzing about her thoughts on contact tracing technologies, privacy, and the domination of Big Tech.