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A revealing account of how techno giants manipulate and control our world usurping everything on their way.
Does the specter of mass unemployment loom ahead for humanity as 47% of jobs will disappear in the next quarter century because of what a 2013 Oxford University study of 702 occupations termed as “computerisation”? Or are we headed towards a wonderful future, with 6 billion humans shed from the burdens of working and instead engaging in arts, culture and scientific discoveries, as tech visionaries like Marc Andreessen would have you believe?
Jonathan Taplin, who references the above study as well as an interview of Andreessen, firmly believes that its time to worry – and take a stand. He tears into the characterization by the latter of worries about growing unemployment as simply a matter of “reskilling” of workers – suggesting that only someone as rich, and hence out of touch with the common man, as Andreessen can think that a 50-year-old oil technician can simply reskill, learn coding and work for Google when he loses his job.
“Move Fast and Break Things” is a broadside against big tech, as a threat to democracy and cultural values. The growing role played by technology in everyday lives have been examined in quite a few books recently, although those generally focus on either the risks people take with allowing tech too deeply into their lives (broadly termed cybercrime) or are visions of what a future brave new world is going to look like. Taplin’s book worries about the socio-cultural impact, flowing in part from the economic impact of the growing dominance of a few tech giants which is the gist of his arguments.
Citing data showing that inequality has increased significantly in the US (and around the world) in the past 25 years, the book holds tech monopolies and near monopolies as a major factor in creating inequality. Rules that apply to normal companies such as anti-trust, monopolies, taxes - don’t apply the same way to internet companies, as internet entrepreneurs have convinced successive governments that these will come in the way of “efficiency”. The result is a few outsized winners, and many losers.
The problem is that the internet is particularly good at creating monopolies or duopolies as scale is easily achieved. An example of this dominance - Google’s Herfindahl-Hirschmann Index score in the online search segment is 7200. Regulators usually consider markets with HHI of 1500-2500 to be moderately and >2500 to be highly concentrated. The book contains numerous examples to illustrate this fact and its negative fallouts, whether it’s the slow death of traditional magazines and newspapers as online advertising sucks away their ad revenues, or Amazon leading to a shuttering of bookshops, small publishers as well as mom and pop corner stores.
Taplin’s bigger argument is socio-cultural, that society has put tech innovators on a pedestal and is not paying attention to the enormous costs their mode of thinking inflicts on societal cohesion, while almost exclusively celebrating their successes and innovations. As someone from the media and communications industry, he is a passionate believer in the value that artists of all kinds bring to society, something is being sharply eroded by the high concentration levels we are witnessing. He cites examples from personal experience to show how the music industry, or the film-making has changed, and how the artists are actually much worse off in the new regimes.
With insights into the thoughts of various Valley personalities, and their visions of tech driven Utopia, Taplin suggests that their underlying belief is that of a government hands-free libertarianism as espoused by Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. As he points out, these people forget that the internet was started through government funding, and the initial idea of the internet’s early pioneers, such as Tim Berners Lee, was to democratize and equalize everyone, not to create more inequality. In similar vein, he highlights the internal contradictions and personal and professional moultings of Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and spawner of the “Paypal Mafia” (those who worked at Paypal and went on to found Yelp, Linked, Youtube, Palantir, etc.)
There is a lot of merit in the central arguments which bears thinking about, but the book also suffers from various flaws. Stylistically, there are simply too many quotes! At times chapters feel like assemblages of quotations. That is not to say that he doesn’t have his own mind; he does marshal and furnish various views primarily to support his hypothesis. However, the constant intrusions of quotes make for a jarring reading or listening experience.
His personal experience in the media, entertainment and communications industry make his views on them most authentic, and make his suggestions innovative and positive (such as artists cooperatives much like the Californian orange farmers’ cooperatives to combat Youtube and improve film-making). And it does appear that things have gone off-course a fair bit, whether it’s what we read in the news about Peter Thiel’s increasing megalomania, or of the scarcely believable words of Andreessen considering his Netscape was the first to cry bully at Microsoft in the late Nineties.
But it’s not as if concentration is a problem exclusive to the tech industry, as the author himself acknowledges when he quotes (yes, again) Elizabeth Warren stating the growing concentration in industries as diverse as airlines, drugstores, and health insurance. This suggests that there may be larger factors at play in the American economy.
Finally, apart from the above innovative suggestion for the film industry, Taplin has no positive recommendations to offer other than government intervention to break the monopolies. And here lies the second flaw – the views are US-centric, but while they apply broadly to the world since these same companies dominate these fields in most countries, there are notable exceptions such as China. Knowing the Chinese government’s authoritarianism and the local tech giants’ willingness to abide by government diktats, their state is likely to be even worse. And the recommendations of this book are likely to hamstring one set of American companies against essentially Chinese competition for everything future tech related.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
An excellent, well reasoned discussion about the current cyber monopolies in the world and their potential for harm.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I weened myself off Facebook as a result of reading this book and have started using (or at least trying to) more anonymity online.
Very well researched and a great read for the lover of tech anti-trust.