As a new year dawns expect a fresh assault on big tech | John Naughton

Sometimes history repeats itself. We saw that in the year that just ended and it looks like we are going to see it again in the year that is just begun.

The year in which it became clear that tech was going to become a regulated industry was 2021. The direction of travel was clear, even though it was unclear how that would pan out.

In the US, the incoming Biden administration began appointing to government smart people who understood the societal dangers of corporate power. The Federal Trade Commission is chaired by Lina Khan, who is also the assistant attorney general for antitrust and competition. And so on. The most significant moves were made by US-based tech companies, but there were signs that democracies were emerging from the long slumber of tech companies.

It was eerie to see how the tech companies responded to this coming, as chronicled in the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How the Tobacco and Energy Companies Changed the World. Andrew Bosworth, the incoming chief technology officer of Meta, was asked ifvaccine hesitancy would be the same with or without social media. His reply reads: "I think Facebook ran probably the biggest Covid vaccine campaign in the world." What more can you do if some people choose not to get the information from a real source? That is their choice. They can do that. You have an issue with people. You don't have a problem with Facebook. You can't put that on me.

The tech companies responded in the same way as the tobacco and energy companies did earlier.

Sounds familiar? The idea of the carbon footprint was invented by oil companies. Since it is a free country, nobody is forcing you to do something that is bad for you. The child or his or her parents are responsible for childhood Obesity. Alcoholism happens because you don't drink in moderation. The mass shooter was not radicalised by YouTube. It is not the responsibility of the manufacturer of the addictive product.

Next. We can anticipate a repeat performance of that perennial staple of capitalism, irrational exuberance, in the year 2022, in the words of the economist Robert Shiller.

This tulip-mania de nos jours has been happening with cryptocurrencies for a while, but is about to become more frenzied as the idea that the basis for something called Web3 is a new, properly decentralised version of the technology that underpins bitcoin, Ethereum et al.

This is an interesting idea, to create an alternative world of finance, commerce, communications and entertainment that could transform significant elements of the global economy and not be controlled by banks and governments. This has a feeling of deja-vu for those of us who have been cursed with bad memories. It reminds us of the early days of the internet, when it evoked utopian dreams, and we believed it was an invention that could change the world and become a force for democratisation.

It didn't work out like that. We underestimated the cunning and ruthlessness of corporations, the feebleness of governments and the fact that many of our fellow humans were content to be passive couch potatoes.

Will history repeat itself if the dream of Web3 is realized? Time will tell. Happy new year!

I have been reading.

Noah Smith wrote The Liberty of Local Bullies in 2011.

Christopher Hitchens wrote a review of a biography called Lucky dipModeration or Death by Michael Ignatieff.

In the Beginning Was the Command Line is a memorable essay by Neal Stephenson on PCs, programming and operating systems.