Hyperdriving the tech giants

Over the last fifteen years or so the conditions have been ripe for the radical expansion of the tech giants. Partly fuelled by the promise of future profits yet-to-come and propelled by the establishment of changing notions of privacy and social interaction, these tech giants are now amongst the biggest companies in the world. The value and projected value of data have mixed together to give these companies significant power, reach and financial might. This is a widely told story.

What couldn't have been imagined were the conditions in which these tech platforms could expand even further (and even more rapidly). Nor could we have foreseen this happening due to an enforced shrinkage of most other sectors, companies and organisations. A longer term rebalancing of commercial activity has suddenly hit the tech hyperdrive button.

The current lockdown conditions are doing two things to help these tech monoliths. First, the circumstances are weakening or even completely removing small and medium sized companies, retailers and other service providers from the map. In their absence the tech giants have the means and logistics to step in to the space. In the short-term this at least ensures provision. The question will be what happens afterwards.

Second, the lockdown has driven more of our time, consumption and purchasing toward tech and media. The landscape is channeling us toward tech platforms. The lockdown leads our attention toward the types of services these tech companies provide. Society at a distance is suited to platformatisation. Ever larger portions of leisure and work have been driven onto platforms.

Alongside this, newer platforms for social connection are emerging, such as Zoom, and established but growing visually-focused social media like TikTok are expanding rapidly. Messaging apps like WhatsApp are likely to be very active as people seek to stay connected, somehow. And then, of course, people are connecting on other social media and looking for entertainment from these platforms too. A boom time to be a platform.

The question is what this will mean once lockdowns are eased and a new type of normality starts to settle in. The already powerful tech giants are likely to have thrived whilst many others will have fallen away. This will give them new power and scope.

Following and understanding these new levels of coverage and expanded powers will be important. Governance will be needed to keep that power in-check and, crucially, to reopen the spaces they have occupied. Pushing back and maintaining the room for other companies to return or launch, and facilitating the emergence of other types of social and cultural ventures will be important. These might be commercial ventures or they might take other forms, but they will need space to be actively opened for them if they are to find their feet away from the outward pressures of the centrifugal tech platforms.

The lockdown may be in place for a fixed if unknown period, the implications for the rebalancing of the economy and the power of the tech sector are likely to have a much longer trajectory. More concentration, more monopolisation, more data extraction and targeting, and so on. It is not clear what this will mean. Given the space to rapidly expand into the vacuum created by the distancing of social life, those tech giants are likely to take the invitation to grow. As our attention moves to what comes next, this unconstrained growth will need considering if we want to alter the direction things are heading.