Big Tech

The Working Catholic: Big Tech by Bill Droel

The popular use of a term sometimes differs from its original use. Such is the case with Luddite, which now usually refers to someone who fiercely opposes most technology. Blood in the Machine by Brain Merchant (Little Brown, 2023) takes us back to the term’s origin: the Luddite Movement in England from 1811 to 1816.
Textile workers were opposed to certain types of automated machines, not wholesale opposition to all technology. They also believed that employers deceived them about manufacturing changes. The workers damaged some factory machines, but eventually lost their battle when military force was used against them.
In our day, some tech companies warrant resistance over their treatment of employees and consumers. Those companies include the social media–Meta (Facebook), Tik Tok, and X (Twitter) and others. Plus, the big tech retail giant Amazon and probably the app-based delivery/rider companies.
The harmful side effects of these companies derive from their operating philosophy, as summarized by Adrienne LaFrance in “The Despots of Silicon Valley” for The Atlantic (3/24). The authoritarian titans of tech are dangerous, she writes. They believe “that technological progress of any kind is unreservedly and inherently good; that you should always build it, simply because you can; that frictionless information flow is the highest value regardless of the information’s quality; that privacy is an archaic concept…[and that] the power [of tech experts] should be unconstrained.”
LaFrance continues: The tech giants “promise community but sow division; claim to champion truth but spread lies; wrap themselves in concepts such as empowerment and liberty but surveil us relentlessly.”
Our Congress is concerned about the side effects of big tech. Both House and Senate routinely summon one or another tech executive to address those concerns. Those hearings are perhaps a modest start. Collective and individual action on the part of the public is urgently needed. A few groups are on the case. For example, Collective Action in Tech ( maintains a list of organizing efforts among employees in the big tech sector. Mothers Unite to Stall Technology ( advises parents on the harmful effects of mobile devices and more. (Ironically, these citizen efforts rely on tech platforms to spread their ideas and this column appears on a website.)
Citizens should keep basic principles in mind. First, as Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) warns us, all technology individuates. Contrary to the propaganda of the social media platforms, communication through mobile devices puts users further apart. One’s so-called friends on Facebook are likely not genuine friends unless honest and vulnerable face-to-face contact also occurs. Second, as Marshall McLuhan preaches, “the medium is the message.” That is, the content is less relevant than the hardware (the device itself, the satellite and the earthbound transmitters and cables). Merely having a TV in one’s home changes the household environment, no matter the content of one or another TV show. A mobile device in one’s pocket changes one’s outlook, no matter who is texting whom.
These principles and others should, by the way, cause reflection on the part of church leaders—particularly those in liturgical denominations. For example, a camera inside a church in itself makes the worship a little bit more entertainment and a little less participatory liturgy. Say it this way: There is no such thing as reality TV or reality streaming. The image from a camera signal sent up to a satellite and back down to a TV, a computer or a mobile device is not reality. It is a projection, and it necessarily individuates. Be honest: Do you drink coffee or surf channels while watching TV Mass?
Droel is the author of Public Friendship (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $6)