The message
Tech giants’ utopian branding drifts ever further from their amoral reality

The image of the new tech corporations such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon is as precisely calibrated as any other brand’s. ‘Branding’ has been a key element of all these companies’ corporate PR strategies; they have stoked the cult of the user’s personal brand, essentially putting the bulk of building their business onto the shoulders of users. Neither Google nor Apple nor Facebook nor Amazon actually produces culture of any kind (though Amazon now experiments, with varying degrees of success, in original programming and publishing). Instead their business models and brand identities are built on hosting, curating, serving and organising other people’s intellectual property – often without their permission – which has been effectively semantically recast under the machine-like rubric of ‘content’.

The new corporation fits precisely into the brand mould of the ‘anti-corporation’, as articulated by Naomi Klein in a 2009 essay for the Baffler. Google’s multicoloured logo and whimsical doodles project fun innovation; Facebook’s blue radiates a calming credibility in marketing colour theory; Apple’s fetishistic product design took the company to the position where Steve Jobs – noted Deadhead and LSD-tripping hippie – felt compelled to co-opt images of Gandhi, Einstein and Martin Luther King to sell computer hardware. These companies were about hawking a lifestyle to their consumers where everyone was a unique and special individual expressing their unique, individual specialness, not consumerist drones lining up to spend close to $1000 on the latest version of a phone riddled with personal security flaws and plagued by dead batteries.

The proto-image of life inside the anti-corporation tech behemoth was likewise precisely engineered. Stories abounded of foosball tables, flat organisational structures, making your own hours, ‘down time’ for personal projects that would later be bought out by your employer, catered meals on the office campus complex, chartered buses for employees, sneakers and hoodies and endless supplies of energy drinks. All these elements were about projecting an image of exceptionalness: we are different. People who work here are different. We are not a corporation, we are a way of life. We are the future. The rest of you just live in the world that we create.

The anti-corporation corporation took Douglas Coupland’s 1995 satire Microserfs as a field guide, not criticism: Coupland’s work presented an environment in which employees could no longer differentiate between work and home. The new corporation’s efforts to make work a more enticing place than home were designed to wring productivity, efficiency and masses and masses of overtime out of its workforce, all the while making them feel like they were having a blast.

The new corporation positioned itself very deliberately in opposition to traditional structures of all kinds. The free-culture tenets of the internet were against big business. Against corporations of the more recognisable kind. Against government regulation that choked free expression. Against traditional media gatekeepers and culture makers. The ethos was, instead, about the individual having a voice.

The new tech corporation said to everyone: you are an artist. You have untapped potential. You have never been given a break, and we are here to give to it you. So upload ‘content’ to our servers. Set up accounts on our social media platforms to tell people about the content you have posted to those servers. Begin a self-perpetuating machine that requires constant maintenance and the ceaseless generation of new content. It was predicated on the lie that unimaginable success was the birthright of anyone with something to say, and that if you only worked hard enough on your personal brand by using these free services, you would achieve recognition, money and fame, all just by building your own audience. Everyone was now a ‘content creator’. Professionals previously known as writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers – their jobs could now be done by anyone. This made sure that sustainable careers in these industries were now the purview of pretty much no one.

But the new tech corporation is not a benevolent entity concerned with the free expression of the world’s citizens. It exists for only one reason: to make money. The more people use these services, the more speculative worth accumulates for the corporation’s owners and shareholders. It was therefore sound corporate strategy to present one’s anti-corporation as a font of self-expression, free from the interference of traditional commerce.

People love being told that what they are doing is art or somehow changing the world. The more content was added to the pages of the services, the more page views they accumulated and so the more space for advertisers and the more data was harvested to sell to third parties. While you were busy building your personal brand by cultivating a tiny community of readers on social media platforms for your as-yet-unpublished novel, the guaranteed winner in each of those interactions was the company behind your chosen platform – and the number of page views they managed to mine from you during your brand-building efforts. Efforts which would most likely have been much better spent actually writing your novel.

In recent years, the new Silicon Valley has been repeatedly exposed as home to a noxious brew of misogyny, nepotism and get-rich quick schemes around which swirl hundreds of millions and sometimes  billions of dollars up for grabs for whoever has the most overvalued idea for an app that no one will remember in three years. It’s a far cry from its idealistic beginnings.

Silicon Valley today thrives on a culture of all credit and no responsibility, and having an each-way bet by saying on the one hand to investors, ‘Yes, we are responsible for this enormous user base!’ while saying to regulators, ‘No, we aren’t responsible for what people post on our servers.’ By being pro-free speech at all costs while taking no responsibility – thanks to Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act of 1996 – for hate speech, racist speech, sexist speech, threats of violence, revenge porn, harassment, copyright infringement and all manner of other low human impulses which found unchecked expression on the internet, the new corporation wants to be a legitimate force of social and economic influence, while shirking responsibility for regulations that govern the real world. Many tech companies today morally act as if the internet were still a free-floating lawless pretend-space and not, increasingly, the centre of every connected person’s life.

The business models of these corporations fall in two categories: advertising and venture capital investment, both of which require enormous user bases to secure. In late-stage neoliberal capitalism, the new corporation doesn’t even have to post profits to be valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Amazon, nearing 20 years of operation, posts quarterly losses in the hundreds of millions. Its worth, like that of Facebook and Spotify, is seen in the untapped monetisation potential of its billion-plus and millions-strong user bases in the eyes of its investors. How precisely to turn that potential into actual profit and revenue remains unresolved, and yet this pretend economy wields enormous power over the fortunes of the real industries the new corporation uses to build its empire.

This is an extract of a chapter from ‘Copyfight’, edited by Phillipa McGuinness, available now (NewSouth, $29.99).

Elmo Keep

Elmo Keep is a broadcaster and writer. Her first book of nonfiction, I Went Where I’ve Been, is forthcoming with Scribe. 

@Elmo_Keep

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