My fractured relationship with “big tech”

I remember when I first started working on the web. It was super Indie and there was a culture of everyone helping each other out to work towards a greater-good. In a lot of cases, this is absolutely still true, but I want to share my feelings about a change that I've noticed on the web.

The change I allude to is that there's been a clear shift in attitude towards “big tech” companies. Once they were looked at with snark from the web community. Microsoft were even looked at as gatekeepers of progress, but that’s changed and there’s almost a cult following, now. I’m not sure that I'm comfortable with it.

A collective desire to work for massive companies

It’s actually a selling point for some tech recruiters to mention how enormous a team is. I've also noticed that this is very much a desirable thing for some of the folks that I mentor with the ultimate goal of working for Google / Facebook / Microsoft being very apparent. I think this is a direct result of some of the code schools that these folks attend having a selling point of landing them a “big tech job”.

Along with extra-large teams of developers—extra-large, complicated and over-engineered codebases are praised for their “innovation”. This creates huge levels of bloat industry-wide as this becomes the standard. It has a big impact because smaller companies try to imitate in an attempt to keep up and hire the best talent. It’s all adding up and certainly having a direct effect on performance as we pump hundreds of kilobytes of JavaScript down the pipes. We even allow massive tech companies to dictate how we write our code without even a second thought. Things certainly have changed.

This isn't an attack on the people who work on the “front line” of these companies though. They're just doing their jobs and some of the most talented and inspirational people work for these types of company. A lot of whom are trying to improve things for the web as a whole, from the inside. Those people have and will continue to have my upmost respect.

It is however concerning that a lot of the most talented and inspirational people are being hoovered up by these massive tech companies. How much of their potential is locked-away behind NDAs and huge, never released projects? Is the work that they do day-to-day actually helping line the pockets of greedy executives and shareholders rather than helping the web community like these large companies claim they do?

Questionable ethics

I say questionable ethics, but really, are there any ethics at a board level in these companies? I'm going to come straight out with it: there simply can't be. If there was even a crumb of ethics, these companies wouldn’t be signing deals with government agencies who separate families and lock children up in cages; they wouldn’t capitalise on harvesting and selling people’s most personal, private information and usage habits; they wouldn’t help weapons companies produce drones that murder people in cold-blood and they wouldn't abuse their staff and prevent them from basic human rights such as going for a toilet break.

What stage of capitalism are we in when we turn a blind eye to such blatant human rights abuse?

I was really starting to warm to Microsoft and their valiant open-source efforts, but their relationship with ICE was a brutal reminder that what we see, publicly vs. what happens at a board level are completely different. The efforts from the people that work within the company to stop that relationship were respectable, but you've got to think that the fact that the relationship existed in the first place tells you everything you need to know about the company’s questionable ethics at a high level.

We continue to allow these companies to sponsor events and we proudly plaster their logos around. This, I think is because these company’s board members are geniuses, in a capitalist sense. They roll out their CEOs with painted-on smiles, dressed in smart-casual attire in impressive conference settings. They soften their branding and contribute heavily to open-source initiatives. In the boardroom however, I’m willing to bet that it’s shady business as usual. It must be, or the deals mentioned above simply wouldn’t get done.

I constantly consider the wolf in sheep’s clothing idiom when I think of “big tech” and it’s something that I simply can’t get out of my head.

Platform hostility

I don’t know what more Google has to do in order for us to stand up and start taking action against them. Maybe they just need to straight-up block any domain that’s not google.com. They're trying to create their own, corporate controlled version of the web with AMP, but we mostly ignore it, apart from the occasional, temporary outrage. The problem is that they create developer convenience by the bucket-load, so we hang up our morals every day and pretend that the browser that powers most of the consumer web traffic has nothing to do with this.

The same goes for Facebook. They commit moral crimes more than most. Their platform along with Twitter has enable the uprising of the far-right and Nazis. It’s fundamentally changed and damaged how humans interact with each other and it thrives off usage addiction. Still, we npm install react without even thinking about it. Some will argue that React is an open-source library, so it’s separated and “all good” in a moral sense. Remember though, friends: a big corporation like Facebook isn’t producing free software for no reason. They’re making React so it’s easier for them to create dark patterns and satisfy KPIs by manipulating user’s feeds, which ultimately will allow them sell more ads. That’s the endgame here and we’re all compliant in its continued success by both using their technologies and by using the platforms on a daily basis.

Wrapping up

I want to reiterate that I have heaps of respect for a lot people that work for big tech companies at a ground level. Especially those that give so much to the web aside and alongside their day-jobs, and that should always be remembered. It’s also not them that are making decisions that have devastating effects on people—it’s the CEOs, board members and shareholders.

This also isn’t a post of “boycott technology X”, either. All I’m saying is let’s be more mindful in general and start remembering the roots of our favourite tools and software. But, removing these dependencies in favour of the web platform will only ever benefit us all, long term. It'll especially benefit the people that matter: the people that use our websites and apps. Focusing our time on people, not developer convenience can only be a good thing.

It’s also worth remembering that Facebook might suddenly decide that they want to mess around with React’s licence again. Maybe we shouldn’t have such selective and short memories moving forward.