Critical discussions of technology now make increasing mention of ‘Big Tech’. So, what exactly is meant by ‘Big Tech’? Why has this term come to prominence, and what issues and questions does it raise for the critical study of education and technology?
What is ‘Big Tech’?
In simple terms, the term ‘Big Tech’ encompasses large multi-national tech corporations that provide the ‘infrastructural core’ (Van Dijck et al. 2018) underpinning our increasingly digitised societies and economies. In a practical sense, ‘Big Tech’ is a more ensuring point of reference than ‘FAANG’, ‘GAFAM’ and other acronyms that quickly lose relevance as companies’ fortunes fluctuate and/or names alter. The term ‘Big Tech’ remains useful shorthand whether talking about Google or Alphabet, Facebook or Meta.
As such, the exact composition of ‘Big Tech’ is perhaps less important than the basic idea of what Birch and Bronson term corporate ‘digital leviathans’ that now significantly influence on our societies, economies, cultures, and politics. In this sense, ‘Big Tech’ offers a useful focal point when analysing how these largest tech companies have become “the defining institutions of our day” (Birch and Bronson 2022) – a modern-day equivalent to ‘Big Oil’, ‘Big Banking’, ‘Big Tobacco’, and other twentieth century power blocs.
Why is ‘Big Tech’ important?
As with any economic monopoly, most discussions of Big Tech tend to centre on the size and scale of these multinational corporations’ market power, and, in turn, their growing social influence. The financial scale of Big Tech certainly means that these corporations wield disproportionate influence over the development and take-up of digital services – often subsuming any emerging innovations and posing a significant barrier for new competitors to enter the marketplace.
As such, Birch and Bronson argue that we need to give careful thought to how firms such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google act as powerful ‘gatekeepers’ – both in economic terms and in terms of shaping the digital services that citizens are increasingly reliant on across society. This gatekeeping role is evident in the digitisation of public services such as education, health and welfare, as well as economic sectors such as finance and retail. Such trends look set to continue into what Hendrikse et al. (2022) anticipate as the likely ‘Big Techification of everything’ as the 2020s progress into an era of AI, 5G, IOT and similar digital entanglements.
Defining features of ‘Big Tech’
Alongside this economic power are the less obvious ways in which Big Tech in bringing a number of tech industry logics to bear on contemporary societal dynamics and shared understandings of how things should be done. In short, Birch and Bronson set out a number of ways in which Big Tech brings with it a distinct ontology that is coming to define how many people see the world, and how we can act within it.
First is the framing of all people (regardless of their circumstances or context) as individual ‘users’ that operate wholly within a digital ecosystem. This is clearly problematic for a number of reasons. This emphasis on ‘users’ configures people’s significance solely in terms of interactions with the system and/or the wider digital ecosystem. Seen in this way, everything that people do has to be machine-readable. Conversely, everything that is not machine-readable becomes invisible and rendered insignificant. The blunt logic here is that if something does not leave a digital trace then it does not count.
Viewing everyone as a user also pushes us to position all actions as acts of consumption and/or production, and thereby driven by rational choice and the logics of commodification. Underpinning this is privileging of implicit individualisation – foregrounding people as rational individuals who are free to self-regulate their behaviours, and navigate system architectures. This foregrounding of the agentic individual tends to marginalise concerns over social divisions and structuration, as well as devalue principles of collectivism and community.
Second is what can be described as a ‘politics of scaling’ (Pfotenhauer et al. 2022). In simple terms, this is the idea that all under-takings need to be scalable. The Big Tech mentality strives to move beyond localised actions, and instead engage in universalised actions that can dominate markets on a society-wide basis. This ties in with the tech-industry idea of ‘network effects’ – where online services and systems with the largest reach and user bases are able to continue to generate the largest gains in value and utility.
Third is what can be described as a ‘politics of modularity’ (Birch and Bronson 2022). This refers to how Big Tech firms strive create conditions where they can easily ‘plug in’ smaller social actors into digital ecosystems that they ultimately retain control over. This is most evident in the ways in which software development has become dependent on APIs (application programming interfaces), SDKs (software development kits), and other plugins – all allowing other social actors to enrol Big Tech resources and services into their own products and services.
In one sense, this modularity allows smaller actors to leverage the technological resources of Big Tech firms – creating a culture of ‘software-as-a-service’ where specialised services and resources are rented out on an on-demand basis. At the same time, however, such arrangements allow Big Tech firms to extend their reach and power beyond well their own organisational boundaries, and reinforce smaller actors’ dependency on them. Indeed, this modularity encourages any potential market challengers to join in (rather than attempt to disrupt) Big Tech ecosystems. In this manner, Birch and Bronson points to the self-perpetuating market dominance of Big Tech – with new investors feeling compelled to finance and develop compatible innovations that augment and reinforce Big Tech ecosystems and general logics.
Considering the education influence of ‘Big Tech’
It is telling to consider how these Big Tech logics now increasingly shape an area of society such as education. For example, growing attention is being paid to the platformisation of schools and universities through the system-wide dominance of firms such as Google. It is now possible for a school to operate almost wholly through Google products and services – from Chromebook laptops through to Google Classroom’s suite of online resources, alongside Google-provided teacher training and curriculum design. This is all underpinned by Google’s AI frameworks and other data infrastructure. Similar dependencies are being developed through the ubiquity of entities such as Amazon Web Services – prompting some commentators to herald “the reengineering of educational institutions” in the image of these Big Tech providers (Perrotta 2021).
While this analysis remains valid, we need to be mindful of positioning ‘Big Tech’ as some sort of bogeyman figure within our accounts of the contemporary digitisations of education. Above all, it is important not to mis-construe ‘Big Tech’ as a singular force that is somehow working to mould the world into its own image. These are all companies that fiercely compete against each other (indeed, some people talk deliberately of ‘Big Techs’ plural). There are significant intra-corporation differences in how a firm such as Microsoft or Google will operate across different regions and locales. Moreover, there are many non-Western corporations that are just as economically ‘big’ as GAFAM – such as Chinese mega-corporations such as TenCent and AliBaba. As best, then, ‘Big Tech’ is perhaps best understood as a loose umbrella term for a diverse range of corporate interests and agendas.
It is also important to acknowledge that Big Tech firms do not operate in isolation. Instead, it is also important to consider the array of enabling actors that play integral roles in sustaining the power of ‘Big Tech. Birch and Bronson point to a range of ‘non-obvious’ collaborators and enablers. These include state regulators and government agencies keen to outsource complex infrastructural issues and responsibilities. Birch and Bronson also highlight the enabling role of critical academics who are enrolled as corporate ethicists, given tokenistic research grants, and are otherwise co-opted into the Big Tech ecosystem
In this sense, we need to be careful not to ‘other’ Big Tech in our analyses of how education and other societal domains are increasingly shaped by commercial digitisations. In many ways, we are all complicit in what ‘Big Tech’ represents and what Big Tech is doing. The challenge that now faces critical commentators is to think past these current hegemonic conditions. As with the eventual decline of Big Tobacco and Big Oil, it is important to begin planning for what might come after Big Tech, and how can we ensure that these new arrangements are better for all of us? For example, what does a non-scalable, collective-minded ‘Small Tech’ look like? What alternate avenues are possible?
Birch, K. and Bronson, K. (2022). Big Tech. Science as Culture.
Hendrikse, R., Adriaans, I., Klinge, T. and Fernandez, R. (2022). The Big techification of everything. Science as Culture, 31(1).
Perrotta, C. (2021). Programming the platform university. Research in Education, 109(1):53-71.
Pfotenhauer, S., Laurent, B., Papageorgiou, K. and Stilgoe, J. (2022) The politics of scaling. Social Studies of Science 52(1):3–34
Van Dijck, J., Poell, T. and De Waal, M. (2018) The platform society. Oxford University Press.