“Monstrous hybrids,” a term coined by Jane Jacobs, predates the Big Tech of today but describes what they have become and what Jacobs saw as ruinous to society.
Conservatives are confused about how to view the tech giants, which have become so powerful in so many areas of our lives. Should the Facebooks, Twitters, and Googles be seen as private companies and thus be left alone to be disciplined by the free market? Or should they be seen as de facto monopolies, and thus proper targets for government control?
Jane Jacobs, one of the great public intellectuals in the last half of the 20th century, coined a term in her bestseller, “Systems of Survival,” that describes what Big Tech companies have become—“monstrous hybrids.”
Jacobs, who made Toronto her home after leaving the United States over the Vietnam War, described two broad moral foundations for society—one based on guardianship, the other on commerce. Each has distinct characteristics, or moral syndromes, as she called them, and each is legitimate. The guardians—these include politicians as well as public and private police forces, the courts, NGOs, clerics, and most government employees—tend to shun trading, dispense largesse, deceive for the sake of the task, and exert force. These characteristics work well in protecting society, and they differ entirely from the traits that dominate commercial morality, which include shunning force, coming to voluntary agreements, and competing and dissenting for the sake of the task.
When these moral syndromes are pretty much followed—when guardians stick to their lane of protecting society and commercial enterprises stick to making profits—society functions well. But when guardians move into the commercial lane, or vice versa, they create hybrids with characteristics of both syndromes. The results can be monstrous.
As examples of monstrous hybrids, Jacobs cited the Mafia and street gangs who run businesses while ruling territories they control, police officers who abuse their authority by soliciting bribes, and companies that obtain commercial monopolies through collusion with government officials. Jacobs didn’t discuss Big Tech; she published “Systems of Survival” in 1992, before Big Tech was granted the immunity from prosecution that helped catapult it to dominance. But Big Tech embodies everything Jacobs saw as ruinous to society.
Instead of staying in its commercial lane, Big Tech became a political player, took on functions of government, and otherwise acted as guardians.
In a leaked video of a Google meeting that took place shortly after Donald Trump’s 2016 win of the presidency, the company’s leaders, from co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin on down, seem of one mind in their determination to counter the populist movement and Trump voters, whom they viewed as “extremists.” Brin asked how Google could ensure a “better quality of governance and decision-making.” CEO Sundar Pichai promised that Google would develop machine learning and artificial intelligence to neutralize what they saw as “misinformation” shared by “low-information voters.” Google made good on its vow, as since reported in countless venues, among them a major Wall Street Journal investigation that showed Google blacklists conservative sites and hides information from those using its search engine to promote its own agendas.
Facebook likewise acts as a wing of the Democrats by censoring information that would hurt the Democratic Party and, in its words, by deciding prior to the 2020 election “to run the largest voting registration campaign in American history—with a goal of helping more than 4 million people register to vote.” Unsurprisingly, this campaign operated to get out the Democratic vote. Twitter’s censorship efforts extended to blacklisting the New York Post, America’s oldest daily newspaper, to hide from the public evidence of corruption in the Biden family. And when conservatives migrated to Parler to escape Big Tech’s censorship, Apple, Google, and Amazon acted in unison to shut Parler down.
Big Tech unquestioningly acts as propagandists for the left, enforcing the left’s agenda of political correctness, cancel culture, and identity politics while compromising the public’s privacy and right to free speech. If anything, Big Tech’s role in society has become more consequential as guardians—they effectively became arbiters of election integrity by deciding what information voters should be able to see and when they could see it—than as commercial enterprises. To deem the Big Tech giants simply as actors in the free market because they once happened to have been incorporated betrays a confusion born of willful blindness.
Conservatives weren’t always so confused. After “Systems of Survival” was published a generation ago, its analysis was enthusiastically embraced by paragons of free-market conservatism. A Forbes magazine review by a Cato Institute scholar concluded that “the essence of good public policy is keeping the two syndromes as separate from each other as possible.” A Reason magazine review agreed that “Trying to mix the two syndromes, or to apply them to inappropriate activities, produces institutional, social, and moral breakdown.”
Today’s conservatives need to clear the cobwebs from their minds and see the Big Tech giants for what they are: monstrous hybrids that need to be brought to heel if the rest of us are to enjoy the liberties that we once took for granted.
Lawrence Solomon is a columnist, author, and executive director of the Toronto-based Consumer Policy Institute, founded by Jane Jacobs.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.