From East to West

How a 16th Century Firm Can Explain Today’s Digitised Society

In 1599, a group of 218 merchants in London led by Sir Thomas Smythe, put their investments together to form a joint stock company. Raising over £3 million, the corporation was set up to obtain spices from the East Indies to then be sold in England for the “Honour of our Nation” and the “Wealth of our People”.

Back then a royal charter issued by the Crown was needed create a company, of which was not forthcoming until September 1600. That charter gave the company freedom from customs duties for its first six voyages, a monopoly over trade in the East Indies for 15 years and semi-sovereign privileges to rule territories and raise armies. Such sanctions were what created the East India Company, one of the most powerful companies the world has ever seen.

Fast forward to June 1945, around the end of World War II, the famous report entitled “ Science: the Endless Frontier “ was presented to President Harry Truman. Instead of science falling “flat on its face” after its great contribution to the war effort, it proposed the creation of a new national research system to spur the technological progress essential for economic growth, national security and fighting disease. This report would go on to inspire the creation of the GPS, personal computers, the internet and much more. It was thus a military industrial complex that was behind the growth of a certain high technology hub located on the West Coast; Silicon Valley, home to some of the most powerful companies the world has ever seen.

That the similarities between the East India Company and Silicon Valley go beyond their origin stories may not be apparent at first glance. The legacy of the East India Company is one of a trading corporation absent of any limits to its scope. Reigning over swaths of India, it controlled the law, raised taxes, and waged war. Today’s largest corporations are “tame beasts” compared to what transpired several centuries before.

Yet, such a depiction may be mistaken. Silicon Valley has long outgrown its defence-centric roots, becoming a beacon for a new agile market economy and assuming a status eerily similar to the heights reached by its predecessor. As articulated by Jamie Susskind, the author of Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, it has created a digital lifeworld comprising of “dense and teeming systems that link human beings, powerful machines, and abundant data in a web of great delicacy and complexity”. It is from this that numerous developments have emerged, from the advancements in artificial intelligence to the growth of surveillance capitalism.

Perhaps it is Silicon Valley that makes the East India Company the tame beast? The former may not be capable of controlling the law, raising taxes or waging wars, but it has produced companies capable of exercising great influence in their own way.

Through mass data extraction and analysis, Google has amassed a fortune with its targeted advertising model and cemented itself as the gatekeeper of the internet recording billions of searches per day. Facebook has followed a similar fate in becoming the biggest social media platform whilst demonstrating its potential to facilitate mass manipulation and herding on an unprecedented scale. Amazon boasts around 40% of online retail sales in the US and provides cloud-computing services supporting copious businesses around the world.

The common thread that runs through these tech companies and others is how they view their place in the world. These organisations are fuelled by a formidable desire to change society in profound ways for the better. They are ruthlessly focused on building the future through rapacious entrepreneurialism and groundbreaking technology. This spirit, stemming from the political impetus of 1940s America, is not too dissimilar to the grand ventures envisaged by the founders of the East India Company.

But also worryingly reminiscent is the cognitive dissonance. Ironically, tech firms have tasked themselves with building the future without considering all the consequences of their creations. The mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ has long dominated the cultural backcloth of Silicon Valley, threatening to put privacy, free speech and democracy among the pile of broken things left in its wake.

In its day, the East India Company was a monopoly, colonial proprietor and corporate State all in one. Yet for a long while, it existed without the checks and balances of a national government and was accountable only to its investors. It thus illustrates how corporations can inconspicuously usurp great power without the imposition of great responsibility. In this respect, it could be argued that Silicon Valley is home to a number of contemporary East India Companies.

Susskind outlines a question for the 21st century: to what extent should our lives be directed and controlled by powerful digital systems and on what terms? As the latest anti-trust action against Google in the US shows, this is the question, among others, that politicians of the future will need to grapple with.

Originally published at https://bbench.co.uk on November 24, 2020.

Privacy Pro and Editor-in-Chief at The Cyber Solicitor