THE rise of tech billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerburg and Elon Musk has fuelled a level of global inequality not seen since the robber barons of the late 19th century, a new book has argued.

Examples such as mega corporation Apple reaching a valuation equivalent to the 6% of the world’s GDP shows how capitalism has “gone mad”, the analysis says. At the same time, it warns the “exploitation” of customers by tech firms, such as collecting data through social media, has fuelled an erosion of democracy, political division and the rise of populist leaders such as Donald Trump.

David Buckham, who has written Unequal: How Extreme Inequality Is Damaging Democracy and What We Can Do About It – along with Robyn Wilkinson and Christiaan Straeuli – said the mega corporations of today were different from giant firms in the 1980s which manufactured goods such as dishwashers and cars.

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“They are more concentrated in wealth, in single individuals – these people are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, so this level of wealth inequality has never been seen before,” he told the Sunday National.

“Apple reached a valuation at the peak of 2021 of $3 trillion – to put that in perspective, that is 15% of US GDP and about 6% of worldwide GDP in one company. It’s insane.

“So these companies have become incredibly powerful to an extent that’s never been seen before. Our argument is [that] inequality is driven by capitalism gone mad and simultaneously by an erosion of what you could call the soul of democracy by social the fragmentation of social media and the narrowcasting nightmare of information that we get.”

One example that highlighted the level of extreme wealth enjoyed by the new tech giants is reports that the maker of a sailing yacht commissioned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos – the largest of its kind in the word – considered asking for a historic bridge in Rotterdam to transport his newly built vessel out of harbour. Bezos (pictured) also found a solution to the fact his new boat could not have landing space for a helicopter – by building another yacht to act as a dedicated floating helipad, the book notes.

It states: “Much like the robber barons of the 19th century who monopolised the largest and most influential industries of the time, these modern tech barons have captured and centralised the world’s most profitable and influential industries into just a handful of extremely powerful companies.”

Meanwhile, the book says that over the past three decades the average person has become a consumer as opposed to a citizen, with social media contributing towards a focus on trends and fashions instead of “underlying values” and the rise in cancel culture.

Buckham, who is based in Johannesburg, said: “What’s been created with social media is there’s actually an entity [of me] inside of Facebook, which is a set of data points on my preferences, what I did yesterday, where I went. All of this data has been collected and sold and used to sell things to people.

“And so we are receiving constantly only a kind of inward reflect of what a computer thinks that we are in a set of limited data points. We are likely to have in our imaginations such vastly different ideas of reality that our ability to converse is very low.”

The National: Elon Musk acquired Twitter last OctoberElon Musk acquired Twitter last October

Buckam argued there were obvious solutions which could be introduced, including imposing a tax on companies that advertise from totalitarian regimes.

He added: “The other solution would be to have very, very strong legislation against social media companies.

“We also don’t need Jeff Bezos to become any richer – there should be laws against internet companies selling goods in South Africa and not paying taxes.”