Beware of Monopolistic Technology Companies
Recently I finished reading Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin, published by Little, Brown and Company. The author’s main argument is that a limited number of technology companies are destroying our democracy because they have gotten too large and because they are controlling what we read, watch, listen to as entertainment and what we purchase over the internet. Mr. Taplin also posits that the founders and leaders of these technology companies believe they can do anything they want until they are told they can’t. This belief, that they can do anything comes from the passage in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead where Howard Roark, the main character, responds to a question, as quoted by Mr. Taplin:
“My dear fellow, who will let you? That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”.1 (p. 72)
It’s no surprise that many technology leaders and their monopolistic companies are admirers of the works of Ayn Rand and the economist Milton Friedman. They, according to Mr. Taplin, are libertarians who also believe “that the supremacy of the free market is the natural order of things”1 (p. 74). They posit “that government is usually wrong and the market is always right”1 (p. 17). Peter Thiel a board member of Facebook and the founder of PayPal, wrote in his manifesto on the Cato Institute’s website:
“We are in a deadly race between politics and technology … the fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”1 (p. 75)
During Gary Johnson’s 2012 libertarian Party presidential campaign, Jeff Bezos the founder and CEO of Amazon, in an interview for the Academy of Achievement said:
“I think people should carefully reread the first part of the declaration of independence. Because I think sometimes, we as a society start to get confused and think that we have a right to happiness, but if you read the declaration of independence it talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nobody has a right to happiness. You should have a right to pursue it and I think the core of that is liberty.”1 (p. 78)
The monopolistic technology companies Mr. Taplin highlights are Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Their primary business objective is to collect data and sell advertisements. There were two laws enacted during Bill Clinton’s administration that are major contributors to this do-anything they-want mindset. These laws are ITFA (Internet Tax Freedom Act) and DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act).
ITFA: “The law bars federal, state and local governments from taxing Internet access and from imposing discriminatory Internet-only taxes such as bit taxes, bandwidth taxes, and email taxes. It also bars multiple taxes on electronic commerce.”2
Mr. Taplin says this ITFA law helped Amazon wipe out the local bookstores and record stores in America.
DMCA: “It criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works (commonly known as digital rights management or DRM). It also criminalizes the act of circumventing an access control, whether or not there is actual infringement of copyright itself. In addition, the DMCA heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet.”3
Mr. Taplin says this DMCA law has protected online service providers from copyright infringement prosecution.
What hits home the point of this monopolistic thinking are the views of technology leader Peter Thiel, a driving force in Silicon Valley. Mr. Taplin references the article “The libertarian logic of Peter Thiel” in the publication WIRED published December 27, 2017 which states;
“monopoly businesses like Google, Facebook, and Amazon serve as a welcome replacement for government. Freed from the unrelenting competition of the market, these businesses can afford to have enlightened values, like investing in the future or treating their employees well. They can actually think about society as a whole. Google, he writes, represents a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. … Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.
Under this theory of benevolent monopolies, government regulations and laws are unnecessary. Taxes are in effect replaced by monopoly profits—everyone pays their share to Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal. And in contrast to the government, these profits are allocated intelligently into research and services by brilliant, incorruptible tech leaders instead of being squandered by foolish, charismatic politicians.”4
“Shared social responsibility is not part of the libertarian creed… the reason Mr. Thiel was drawn to Donald Trump’s authoritarian candidacy was that he would discipline what Thiel calls ‘the unthinking demos’: the democratic public that constrains capitalism.”1 (p.25)
So why should we care? These monopolistic technology companies have after all given society the means to communicate more easily; they have made more information available at our fingertips; and they have made it more convenient to buy anything we want without leaving our homes. Is this a good enough reason to allow these companies to continue in their present form? Mr. Taplin says, “We continue to surrender more of our private lives believing in the myth of convenience bequeathed to us by benign corporations.”1 (p. 12) These corporations have “an insatiable appetite for our most personal data in order to drive us to consume during our every waking moment.”1 (p. 156) And, “in some ways social networks are powerful engines of conformity.”1 (p. 156)
As I stated earlier, these major monopolistic technology companies are in the business of collecting data and selling advertisements. Are we okay with giving our lives over to these companies? Mr. Taplin says, “Google stores your complete search history, your location history, your purchase data, your demographic profile, your calendar, and your contacts”1 (p.256). Why are we letting this happen?
So, what is the impact to us? According to Mr. Taplin the original purpose of the internet was “to decentralize its control and deepen our knowledge base”.1 (p. 47) Has this been accomplished? I was struck by the following references Mr. Taplin presented. The first is from lecture by the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman given at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts:
“People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos, and the Internet. And it's ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn't alter our brains.
It's also equally ludicrous to believe that - at the very least - this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they're being fed mass-produced garbage. The packaging is colorful and loud, but it's produced in the same factories that make Pop-Tarts and iPads by people sitting around thinking, "What can we do to get people to buy more of these?"
And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this; corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.” 1 (p. 243-244)
The second reference is a comparison of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This comparison was taken from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”1 (p.244-245)
I don’t think there is any question that we are all affected by today’s technological tools. It’s unavoidable, we all utilize these tools. The internet and its underlying algorithms and search engines are the core tools used for research, communication, entertainment and for buying things. We don’t, however, give much thought to the impact these tools are having on us and who is controlling them.
I hope the above gives you some food for thought. I’m not suggesting we stop using these powerful tools. They have made (are making) a revolutionary difference in our lives. I am merely pointing out the downside of these new technologies, and I’m questioning the altruistic attitudes of the companies, their leaders and founders. I strongly encourage you all to consider what I’ve presented here and utilize these tools with eyes wide open.
- Move Fast and Break Things. Jonathan Taplin. Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2017. Author Jonathan Taplin.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Tax_Freedom_Act. Wikipedia, 1998.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Millennium_Copyright_Act. Wikipedia, 1998.
- https://www.wired.com/story/the-libertarian-logic-of-peter-thiel/?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=wired. Noam Cohen, published on December 27th 2017.
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