A Big Tech Breakup?: On Ro Khanna’s “Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us”

May 28, 2022   •   By Karthik Purushothaman

Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us

Ro Khanna

RO KHANNA DOESN’T want to lose Big Tech to overseas labor markets like China or India. His well-received new book, Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us, opens with a foreword from Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen: “Just as people can move to technology, technology too can move to people.” Sen points to the economic growth that India — his ­­and my own birth country — witnessed after liberalization, with an outsourcing industry currently valued at $150 billion.

Khanna, who represents a Bay Area district in Congress, wants to lure all this money back by training underserved Americans and building business centers in places like Paintsville, Kentucky, just as they have in Bengaluru, Karnataka.

He offers some Rust Belt and Appalachian examples: partnerships with land-grant universities and digital literacy training at prisons. Doused in Keynesian thinking, Khanna argues that the US government possesses sufficient power and capital to have its tech billionaires do its bidding — especially since the pandemic has brought forth such phenomena as remote work, which has led many tech professionals to migrate away from big cities.

Khanna rightly highlights the egregious ways that tech firms evade taxes, merge to monopolize market shares, and lobby to keep a majority of app-based non-technical workers in the role of “contractors” to avoid paying benefits. Yet he also counterintuitively envisions a utopia of “public-private partnerships,” through which the same corporations would willingly relinquish the strategies they have used to turn over trillions. Khanna’s problem-solving approach unfortunately offers too many carrots in the form of tax credits and subsidies. And there’s not enough real change in the program.

Khanna — who was elected to Congress after playing the little leagues, attending public school, and being treated by family doctors in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — renders his own story as a test case for the American Dream in the present day. He seems well intentioned, but the 45-year-old federal lawmaker is blinkered in thinking his story of neoliberal exceptionalism will trickle down empowerment to tech’s industrial working class.

At his core, Khanna is a civil servant who is overly romanticizing blue-ocean start-ups that begin with little more than an idea, a drawing board, and a handful of hardworking people. Khanna essentially acknowledges but stops short of grasping the extent to which such successes are predicated on first-of-their-kind products controlling a majority of the market — and are built on the backs of software programs that relegate entire labor forces to second-class-citizen status.

“[T]he contemporary domination of monopoly capital […] finds its raison d’être in the appropriation of extraordinary profits and technological rents through monopoly prices, among other processes,” write Raúl Delgado Wise, co-director of development studies at Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, and Mateo Crossa Niell, an assistant professor at the Mora Institute in Mexico City. Invoking Joseph Schumpeter, the 20th-century Austrian economist, Wise and Niell note that “competition through ‘creative destruction’ is the most effective means of acquiring advantages over potential competitors” because it is “both a means of achieving monopoly profit and a method of maintaining it.”

Khanna laments that the annual $130 billion raised in venture capital funding is both geographically and racially segregated, which prompted him to write this new book. And it’s perfectly consistent with Wise and Niell’s characterization of an industry that, “[f]ar from acting as a driving force for the development of social productive forces, it has become a parasitic entity with an essentially rentier and speculative function,” underlying which “is an institutional framework that favors the private appropriation and the concentration of the products of general intellect.”

Under such circumstances, Khanna’s Internet Bill of Rights does little to foundationally shift a winner-takes-all system toward egalitarianism: it is predicated on the power of legislation that prevents mergers valued at greater than $5 billion or that of the essential facilities doctrine — an antitrust law whose enforcement would require platforms such as search engines to provide their facilities without discrimination.

It is commendable, however, that Khanna turns on Silicon Valley with the tech industry’s go-to line of defense: that regulating them would hinder their competitiveness against China. He points out that government intervention that fosters a thriving Appalachian tech industry could ensure such competitiveness and guarantee a better quality of life for US citizens through single-payer health care and a Green New Deal.

In Dignity in a Digital Age, Khanna sadly can’t imagine policy action that meaningfully transcends laissez-faire economics. Attempting to bridge the social democratic politics of Bernie Sanders with the Clintonian neoliberalism of Larry Summers, Khanna plays coy about the divide in power and capital. It just doesn’t compute.

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Karthik Purushothaman is a poet and writer from Chennai, India, who lives in New Jersey.