Big Tech: boon or bust for Toronto?

Photo: Rosemary Frei

The new industrial revolution caused by the disruptive muscle of companies like Google, Uber and Amazon is potentially poised to drown not just individual privacy, but everything from journalism, to public transportation, to many small-, medium-sized and large businesses.

As a result Europe is beefing up regulations, some of which came into effect last week, to contain the creep of Big Tech.

Yet the vast majority of participants at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities event on May 15 -- “Toronto: Towards a Smart and Inclusive City-Region” -- appeared to be eschewing the precautionary principle, instead favouring a much-bolstered, less-regulated, Big-Tech presence in Toronto.

They expressed delight at the quality-of-life dividends Dan Doctoroff, founder and CEO of Google offspring Sidewalk Labs, told them will flow to large swaths of the population if the waterfront venture dubbed Quayside fulfills its potential, based in large part on the putative benefits of self-driving cars. And they listened with approval as one of Uber’s top Canadian executives, Adam Blinick, described that company’s regulation- and public-transportation-busting business model.

Opening keynote speaker Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the U of T’s Rotman School of Management, saidif the voices of people he dubs the “New Urban Luddites”grow stronger (for example, they are trying to limit high-tech development in urban centres in the U.S.), “We will begin to impose real limits on technological innovation. That’s why it’s in all of our interests -- communities, city-builders, urbanists and most importantly large tech companies -- to get on with the business of city-building.”

U of T president Meric Gertler said the partnership between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, resulting in Quayside, “may be on the verge of embarking on an urban project with profound implications not just for this region but for the future of other public regions around the world.

But will the implications of Toronto’s big tech projects be positive?

One of the event’s participants was Armine Yalnizyan, a business economist who wears many hats, including as a newly minted Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers. She said in a CBC Radio interview the next morning that the digital age is quickly eclipsing not just low-skill work but also high-skill, high-paying jobs.

“So it’s suddenly very inclusive. As digital technologies get adopted globally, then we’re looking at this... global wage convergence for all types of workers that is speeding up,” said Yalnizyan.

Yet that form of inclusivity was kept far in the background as speakers instead focused on the “quest for inclusive growth” with the private sector creating “sustainable economic prosperity,” and with the government and the rest of the public sector, academia and non-profits playing supporting roles.

Event organizers would have added much-needed balance to the event if they had invited Rana Foroohar. She is a Financial Times columnist and the author of the book Makers & Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business.

Foroohar has been writing and speaking extensively on the dangers of digital domination for several years. In a March 29, 2018 interview she noted that while Big Tech has created some important innovations, much of that is based on previous government research.

In the process, these huge firms have accumulated so much scale and financial clout that they pay their suppliers very little. This squashes the viability and accompanying jobs of whole industrial sectors. At the same time tech giants pay even less for the data that is their main source of revenue and use little labour.

“Trends that we’ve seen in the last 40 years -- increasing inequality, job depression, wage stagnation --all these things are going to be put on rocket fuel with these [Big Tech] firms,” Foroohar said in the interview.

“Technology speeds up the problems of globalization; all the sort of discontents of neoliberalism that favours companies and capital more than labour, that gets sped up exponentially. Because these technology firms create a tremendous amount of wealth but not that many jobs.”

“There’s been a trend of jobs going like this [pointed her thumb down], but market cap[italization] continues to go like that [thumb up],” observed Foroohar. “That is great for the 20 per cent of the populations that owns 80 per cent of the stock assets in this country [the U.S.]. All of our portfolios are going up like that [she pointed upwards]. Jobs, not so much.”

“I think this is going to become a huge political issue... because the disruption caused by these firms and caused not only by what we can see already -- the consumer internet -- but the coming revolution of industrial internet, the internet of things, artificial intelligence -- all of these things are going to disrupt jobs farther and farther up the white-collar jobs chain.”

Foroohar added that “A lot of the proponents of UBI [universal basic income] tend to come out of Silicon Valley, and I feel like they see it as an easy way to make sure that the pitchforks don’t come [out] for them.”

One of the May 15 event speakers also expressed significant concern about what’s unfolding: Patricia O’Campo, a research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Centre for Urban Health Solutions and professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

During a panel discussion O’Campo described how community engagement -- a common component of urban development including in the sort of tech-sector partnerships being touted at the event -- often fails the less-enfranchised grassroots groups it is ostensibly designed to empower. In research she did for the World Health Organization, she found this is done via deliberate mechanisms, such as significantly limiting the scope of the conversation and containing dissent.

O’Campo noted in an interview with rabble.ca during a break at the event that the same thing seemed to be occurring that day.

“These processes of engagement are all about [telling participants], ‘Here are the topics of discussion; here’s how it is going to happen; we’re not going to talk about other issues,” observed O’Campo. “It [imposing barriers to true engagement] is [also] happening right here.”

Photo: Rosemary Frei

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