"We would encourage digitally led organizations to use the confusion around Brexit to outsmart their slower-moving competitors and focus on delivering exceptional digital experiences for their customers."
That was the "advice" from a US website writing on the topic of what Brexit means for the UK’s digital economy.
What the people of the UK really need right now, it seemed to suggest, was exceptional digital experiences.
Look, it is often said in the digital world that digital products "make the world a better place," usually through things such as the "Paxos algorithm for consensus protocols" or some nonsense like that.
But it’s at moments of crisis, like the one the UK is facing as I write this, when this kind of vapid grandiosity is cruelly exposed.
Vote against digital
What can your Uber app do to mitigate the harm to business that Brexit will cause? How will Facebook aid us as we cut ourselves off from our neighbors with disastrous geopolitical results?
It can’t, and it won’t. Digital does not make the world a better place, at least for certain segments of the population. For a lot of Brexiteers, it is making the world a much worse place. That’s why the vote for Brexit was partly a vote against digital and the disruption it represents.
As The New Yorker has pointed out, three things have brewed a crisis in the West: globalization, technological innovation and a political philosophy that supports both. The problem with the way society has been running itself is that it has created a handful of tech winners who win very big, making everyone else a loser by comparison.
Vast corporations such as Google (now the most valuable brand in the world) or Facebook have swallowed the publishing industry whole and are chowing down on advertising as we speak, potentially putting many people out of work. In Essex, innovation means high-status Ford jobs have been swapped for low-paid warehouse work at Amazon.
Uber may be a terrific way of hailing a low-cost ride around town, but it’s hollowing out the taxi business and pushing the UK towards a new category of employment: a kind of constant, part-time jobbing economy — and that’s not only bad for employees but bad for the social fabric, too.
Against all odds
Spotify is great, so it’s no surprise that it now accounts for 41% of global music subscribers. But in 2015, which the company described as its "best year ever," its net losses were $194 million.
How does it survive? With a business model of staggering — but, by now, all too familiar — brutality: become the No. 1 in a market, raise more money than anyone else, then suffocate the opposition with your unviable business model before starting to charge.
It has worked for Amazon, Google, Facebook and Uber. They are now global monopolies of staggering size and power, whose owners are starting to resemble the "robber barons" of the early 20th century. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and their billionaire buddies are using technology to smash down barriers to markets and then hollow out the industries they find there.
Knowingly or otherwise, Brexiteers have voted to close the door on the forces these tech companies harness. But the creative destruction celebrated by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter — and by these businesses — won’t stop just because a faction of Brexiteers vote to ignore them.
Innovative software has already chopped the fees out of money transfers and could potentially replace surgeons and doctors.
So, alongside car workers and taxi drivers, the future of bankers, surgeons, doctors, lawyers and other professionals looks equally in doubt.
Call for regulation
Digital disruption has achieved some amazing things, but don’t keep telling us it’s making the world a better place. It has not yet fed the hungry, educated the poor or cured the sick (though I sincerely believe that it can).
Right now, it is making the world a scarier place for a lot of people who are voting to try to stop it. And more people may yet join the cause.
What can be done? Back in the age of the robber barons, things got so poisonous that some bosses positively begged for government regulation of their businesses. Elbert Gary, head of US Steel, wrote: "I would be very glad if we had some place where we could go, to a responsible governmental authority, and say to them: ‘Here are our facts and figures, here is our property, here our cost of production. Now, you tell us what we have the right to do and what prices we have the right to charge.’"
Mark Zuckerbergs the world over should take heed or I fear Brexit may only be the beginning.
Andy Pemberton is the director of Further.