You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt ,
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.
Merle Travis’s chorus still hits home. It helps that a long list of great singers have covered it, but it was lyrical perfection before they added their musical interpretations. For all the tough talk in the verses, the refrain reveals the coal-mining narrator being bested by poverty in a company town. He’s trapped. He’s not quitting, but he can’t beat the system with his fists.
Company towns, especially the sort Travis sang about, are mostly a thing of the past in this country, and not all were as exploitative as the one in “Sixteen Tons.” By the standards of the time, some were even good, if paternalistic, places for workers to live. The defining feature was not abuse and exploitation, but control. Economic power merged with cultural and political power to control workers.
Big Tech is turning America into a giant company town. The parts of the internet everyone uses are controlled by a small number of companies. In an information economy and online culture, that ubiquity gives them dominion, and they are using it.
We expect business interests to be self-serving in their political involvement, but what sets the tech moguls apart is their desire to direct our lives, even if that draws them into political and cultural conflicts that might imperil their bottom line. The robber barons of yore wanted your money; the lords of Silicon Valley want your heart, mind, and soul.
Censorship Has Reached a New Level
The promise of the internet was openness and freedom, but Big Tech is imposing its views on the rest of us. This goes far beyond outrage mobs using social media to target people and organizations; the tech companies themselves are deploying their power to influence our culture and politics.
Instead of being open platforms for expression, social media giants act like partisan publishers, limiting and even shutting down conversations on political topics. Sometimes, such as with reporting on the allegedly corrupt dealings of the Biden family, they overreach and get caught, but many times their efforts succeed.
Facebook even has Chinese nationals working on its censorship team. The Department of Justice has just filed an antitrust suit against Google. If Google doesn’t show something to you, does it even exist?
Bad as the censorship is, this is not just a matter of partisan censorship by corporate behemoths. Big Tech companies are increasingly able and willing to dictate to smaller businesses. In an information economy, control over information is control over the economy, and therefore control over people. Everyone has bills to pay, and few are going to be willing to put their livelihoods on the line by denying the political and cultural edicts of Big Tech.
For instance, positive online reviews are essential to many small businesses, which gives tech companies enormous power over them. Thus, it is a big deal that online review site Yelp recently promised to amplify accusations of racism against businesses. Antifa activists promptly started planning campaigns against business owners who are not radical leftists, illustrating how abusive this new system will be.
Those whose businesses are harmed after being falsely accused might have a legal case for damages, but the process would be an ordeal, and the plaintiff might go out of business long before collecting. Suing Big Tech is hard, and it would be much easier to keep one’s head down and perhaps get a little social credit by instituting Yelp’s left-wing social justice training program. This manipulation is extortion: Nice shop you got here, shame if something were to happen to it because some crank told all your potential customers that you’re a bigot.
There’s No Defense for the Actions of Big Tech
What is more, those with online businesses might be cut off directly by Big Tech. Google and Facebook control most online advertising (although Amazon might be gaining ground), and they are willing to throw their weight around. Christian satire site The Babylon Bee has been a frequent target. For instance, Facebook recently punished it over a piece in which its only true sin was not being funny enough in rehashing a Monty Python gag.
As these incidents show, the company-town approach of Big Tech is not primarily about exploiting workers. There is some of that, from Amazon warehouses to Apple’s Chinese iPhone factories, but it is almost incidental.
Rather, we see Silicon Valley becoming increasingly comfortable using its power over information to act as an arbiter of our culture and politics. In the traditional company town, the company controlled everything. In the company-town America of Big Tech, a small cabal of corporations effectively controls every aspect of life, from entertainment to employment to the news.
This is why the traditional free-market defenses of Big Tech are so weak. A manufacturer of widgets might be rich and powerful, but that does not approach the level of control our tech overlords have acquired. To call it monopolistic would be an understatement, as it extends beyond any single sector to the entire economy and beyond into our culture. In short, it is not a free market.
Big Tech is telling us what to see and what to say, how to run our businesses, what opinions to have, and how to vote. They are treating all of America like their company town. But we don’t owe them a damn thing, especially not our souls.