Big Tech is the new Big Tobacco
May 25, 2022
If you want to understand the impact that technology is having on us, consider the history of tobacco.
Perhaps you know that Native Americans first introduced tobacco to Europeans, who turned it into a cash crop of great importance to the English colonies along the east coast of what we now call the United States. Europe was their first international market, with tobacco touted for its medicinal benefits. But it was a labor-intensive crop that became far more profitable when slaves were brought in to grow, harvest and cure it.
By comparison, technology also started out as a “healthy” product for our modern world, especially for democracies. But it didn’t start out profitably. I remember my first employer to go online, a newspaper owned by a corporate chain. A company executive came to our operation and told us they were launching websites for every newspaper in the chain. They hadn’t figured out how to make money off it yet, he said, but they’d figure that out as things progressed.
That was, by the way, right about when hardcopy newspaper subscriptions started their long decline, but that’s a topic for another time.
Profitability online really took off with social media in the 1990s. The tech companies quickly figured out that they could engage larger audiences, and generate more ad dollars, by letting people interact with each other, and they started developing ways to keep users engaged with each other on their platforms for longer periods of time.
They became too good at it. Raise your hand if you feel you’re a “slave” to your smart phone.
Of course, such virtual enslavement doesn’t come close to the cruelty of slavery in the tobacco fields of yesteryear but, as Twain might say, there’s a rhyme in there. Addiction, after all, is a form of slavery.
Tobacco thrived as part of America’s economy well into the 20th century, long after it was determined to be detrimental to our health. Big Tobacco knew it first and covered it up. Government intervention finally exposed and confronted its adverse health effects, long before Big Tobacco would ever admit it.
Sound familiar? Facebook, we now know, has long been aware of the detrimental impact social media is having on young people, and we can all see how damaging it’s become to our democracy. But Big Tech has worked hard to gloss it all over, much as Big Tobacco was doing 50 years ago.
The biggest problem is that, like tobacco, social media is addictive. Big Tobacco intentionally infused its products with addictive chemicals to get us hooked; Big Tech’s addictive additives are the algorithms. Hear that second beep on your phone when you don’t immediately look at a text? That’s by design, not so much as a convenience for you but as a way to bring you back to your phone. They need to keep us glued to our screens, not because it’s good for us (because it isn’t), but because that’s how Big Tech makes its money.
Big Tech now controls our behavior. Once upon a time, Big Tobacco had a similar hold over our society. Aggressive and misleading advertising of an addictive product did the trick back then, just as it’s working today.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at: