Beware of Geeks bearing gifts

Beware of Geeks bearing gifts

The Digital Alarmist

Roger Marshall

For those of you who know the story of the Trojan horse, you may be wondering if there is a typo in the title of this article. Rest assured that this is not the case. Its pejorative nature notwithstanding, the word ‘geek’ is very often used to describe economists and computer professionals hunched over keyboards dreaming up the next innovative device or economic artefact to enrich our lives.

Now that the holidays are over, perhaps you have been gifted an Amazon Echo or Alexa or Ring doorbell camera system. Will it enrich your life? Think again.

You just invited the newest Trojan horse into your home. This is in addition to the old one that is already on your laptop or smartphone, the one that has been sending a lot of information on the documents you have created, your incoming and outgoing email, and your shopping and web surfing habits to the cloud, most probably the ones controlled by Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

This column is not so much about the ‘geeks’ themselves but really about the modern-day equivalents of the East India Companies and their modes of operation. The East India Companies (British, Dutch, Danish and French) of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were essentially military-commercial enterprises with quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to raise armies, negotiate treaties, issue their own currency, and establish colonies.

In a March 2015 article in the Guardian, historian William Dalrymple observed, “We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – [Robert] Clive.”

In parallel vein, author Nick Robins (The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational) writes that the East India Company, while guarding its British-government-granted monopoly of imports from Asia, also controlled the sources of supply by dethroning local Indian rulers and replacing them with puppets to eliminate competition. It deliberately breached the terms of its commercial concessions by trading in prohibited domestic goods and sold items 40% below the market rate to bankrupt other sellers.

In her meticulously documented book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, author Naomi Klein recounts that in a coup instigated by the US and Britain, Indonesia’s President Sukarno was deposed by General Suharto whose US-trained economic advisers were “more hospitable to foreign investors wanting to mine Indonesia’s immense mineral and oil wealth,” and the regime “passed laws allowing foreign companies to own 100% of these resources, handed out “tax holidays” and within two years, Indonesia’s natural wealth – copper, nickel, hardwood, rubber and oil – was divided up among the largest mining and energy companies in the world.”

The IT behemoths of today are no different in how they operate. While not needing their own armies, they can rely on governments to protect their interests through restrictive trade deals and the imposition of country-specific sanctions for violations, subvert local court systems via arbitration, subvert banking and financial systems by issuing digital currencies, and use their purchasing power to control weak nation-states with marginal economies.

According to a recent Washington Post article, the US has inserted legal protections into recent trade deals with Canada, Mexico and Japan to shield tech giants such as Facebook and YouTube (owned by Google) from lawsuits in the three countries and that prospective trade deals with other WTO members would contain similar provisions. This is similar to the ‘status of forces’ clause that guarantees US military personnel total immunity from prosecution by the judicial system of host countries for any crimes (including murder and rape) committed within the host country.

How did Amazon catapult from a small nondescript online retailer of used books to the world’s largest online seller of all manner of goods, including information?

Well, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the geeks for technologically enabling Amazon to become the global monopoly that it is today. The geeks -- much like the rulers of small princely states and tribal chieftains in Asia, Africa and elsewhere who were either co-opted, coerced or conned into bartering away their possessions and their independence to one or more of the old multinational corporations in exchange for security and riches.

O tempora, o mores!

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