We are always forgetting the truth about power. Every generation needs to be reminded again that it’s not the person, it’s not the office, it’s power that eventually corrupts and warps even the best personality with the greatest of intentions beyond repair.
I thought a lot about this in writing my novel The Future. I have always been interested in writing about power – most of my books are about how systems of power change us, and how we change them. The Future is about arguably the most powerful individuals on the planet today: the technology billionaires who operate without taxation and government restraint in large part, without term limits, without having to answer to those of us who are the “citizens” of their online territories. How did they get there? Why is it so hard to live outside the infrastructure they’ve made? And how has it changed them to be the centre of so much power?
There was one book that made all the difference in my thinking.
In 1974, Robert Caro published an incomparable, extraordinary book, The Power Broker, which lifted the lid on Robert Moses, the great builder of infrastructure – roads and bridges, parks and tunnels and public buildings – of New York City. People who knew him personally had known he was a tyrant and a bully, a man whose plans had long since stopped making sense except as a way to accrue him yet more power.
The Power Broker is 1100 pages long, yet it is so gripping and so fascinating that one would be glad of a few hundred pages more. It shows Moses beginning as an idealist – a man who, at the start of his career, yearned to build baby-changing stations in New York parks – but who was so changed by power that he ended up stifling vital infrastructure projects because he couldn’t be in charge of them. Written in the back of my copy are the questions that I’m sure most readers asked themselves as they made their way through: “How could this have been stopped? What would it have taken?” Behind that is another question: how can we spot this early enough, and act soon enough now?
It happens, one learns from Caro, at first with a great fanfare. A person does a thing that is an unalloyed good for the community. Moses built a wonderful leisure facility at Jones Beach, something that revolutionised the lives of ordinary people. It’s the same with the tech billionaires. The benefits of the past 20 years of communications technology have been extraordinary. To list them all would take too long, but some things that were science fiction when I was a child are: free video calls; moving maps that tell you exactly where you are; instant access to books, music, art, ideas from billions of people around the world. The ability to make connections, to share thoughts without boundaries, to track down any item you need… these things are extraordinary. And good. Well, that’s where it starts.
From The Power Broker too, we learn that it never ends there. People who have made popular things – important, wonderful things – will have a lot of leeway in the public’s mind. More than they should. So when the next thing, and the next, and the next, aren’t quite as good, it is easy for the public to forgive them. People loved contacting friends on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, but not the data mining. Oh well. People enjoyed the vision of the Tesla, so many of Elon Musk’s online cheerleaders can’t accept the expert criticism of The Boring Company or that he’s making Twitter/X increasingly cringe, or that OpenAI, a company he helped found, is among firms positioned to make thousands, if not millions, of jobs redundant. If Jeff Bezos’s Amazon gets things done – or at least sent out extremely rapidly – then the public imagination glances off the fact that the company has become a virtual monopoly in so many key areas.
Well, this is how it goes. This isn’t – again – about the personality of the individual. It’s about power. I wouldn’t be able to think straight if I had that amount of power and money, and nor would you. I would start to believe that I’d achieved that power and wealth through my own exceptional brilliance with no luck whatsoever and that my interests and ideas aligned best with the needs of the whole world. My personality flaws would be magnified, my brittle self grown monstrous. Those are the effects of power toxicity.
Robert Moses knew that one way to gain power was a simple land-grab: start to build something and then it would seem too difficult, too unpopular, too wasteful to tear it down and start again. This is the “move fast and break things” philosophy of Silicon Valley too. Many things have been built before the laws that could have governed them could be conceived, let alone written, let alone passed by the legislature.
What one learns from Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is that the only way to stop this is through the checks and balances that come with laws. No one is important enough that the law should be made solely for them. And if the laws we have turn out not to accord with our sense of fairness and right in new situations, then we need new laws.
If it seems unfair that companies that make services we need are able to insist we agree to give them all our data before we use them, then we need new laws. If it doesn’t feel just that extremely useful online translators are being trained using the work of human translators, but with no financial compensation to those humans, then we need new laws. If it feels grossly wrong that, having invented the way for us to share our thoughts and ideas – having invented, in effect, a new kind of bag for holding ideas in – social media and other online companies are now claiming ownership of those thoughts to do with as they please… well, then we need new laws.
What one learns from reading The Power Broker is how far one man can go when the public looks at the great things he has built without examining the harms he has caused. If we are all caught up in media circuses, in culture wars, in hot takes… it would be worth considering who has ownership of the means of communication and who benefits when, instead of enacting the new laws that would control them, we are all mesmerised by their power of distraction.
Naomi Alderman’s The Future, published by 4th Estate, is the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club. Sign up and read along with us here