The phrase ‘freedom of speech’ can be as vacuous as the word ‘censor’. Musos may not have been dying in the gutter, but they were going badly because big tech companies were robbing them of their royalties. Congress was moved to act. A bill for the Stop Online Piracy Act got bi-partisan support. The right people were onside. Then in 2012 Google flexed its market-honed muscles. In place of its logo on its search page, it put in a black rectangle: ‘Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the web!’ The resulting traffic overwhelmed the congressional websites. The cowards went to water, and the bill sank. Google put out a lie and wiped Congress off like a dirty bum.
Many Australians fear that Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are getting uglier and more threatening by the day. A new book, World Without Mind, The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer tells why in a crisp, informed and persuasive fashion. Here are some of the main points.
We ought to be afraid of these massive concentrations of wealth and power – and masters of dark technology that most of us neither trust nor understand. Whatever views we might have of the whizz kids who started these outfits, not one of them looks to be equipped to withstand the force of the truth of the maxim that all power corrupts.
It’s not just the power over markets, it’s the power over people, and their minds. At least three of these corporations look to be de facto monopolies. Capitalism was built on competition. These giants of capitalism want to bury it. One of their champions says competition is a ‘relic of history.’
Google has acquired more than 200 companies. If you go against these giants you get crushed or bought. One third of Amazon purchases come from its algorithm derived recommendations. That shows the power over our minds. At least this way, we can be conscious of that power in operation. Amazon sells 65% of e-books and 40% of all books. Its power over publishing generally is terrifying. Bricks and mortar shops of all kinds are under threat – just look at Toys R Us.
These people can be brutally predatory. Bezos said his team should approach small publishers ‘the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.’ Charming. Could Reinhardt Heydrich have improved on that? ‘Team Amazon’ punished the New Republic for publishing an article that was disrespectful. The big techs are committed to freedom of speech, unless they are offended, in which case they retaliate to wound if not to kill. They remind me very much of the Gestapo or the NKVD. They are like laws unto themselves.
Zuckerberg said: ‘In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. We have this large community of people, and more than any other technology companies, we’re really setting policies.’ The Russians used Facebook in manipulating the American election. All the big tech companies were used for fake news. Facebook boasted about how it could manipulate voter turnout. Foer says:
No other company has so precisely boasted about its ability to shape democracy like this – and for good reason. It’s too much power to entrust to a corporation.
And, as we have just seen, Zuckerberg thought Facebook was more like a government than a traditional company.
Facebook has no qualms about performing experiments on its users. (There we see the Third Reich again.) Humans are after all just data, and if Facebook manipulates its users, this will relieve them of the burden of choice. It was George Bernard Shaw who said that freedom means responsibility – that is why most men fear it. Foer offers this gloomy judgment.
Donald Trump is the culmination of the era. He understood how, more than at any other moment in recent history, media needed to give the public what it wants, a circus that exploits subconscious tendencies and biases. Even if media disdained Trump’s outrages, they built him up as a character and a plausible candidate. For years, media pumped Trump’s theories about President Obama’s foreign birth into circulation, even though they were built on dunes of crap. It gave endless attention to his initial smears of immigrants, even though media surely understood how those provocations stoked an atmosphere of paranoia and hate. Once Trump became a plausible candidate, media had no choice but to cover him. But media had carried him to that point. Stories about Trump yielded the sort of traffic that pleased the Gods of data and benefited the bottom line. Trump began as Cecil the Lion, and then ended up president of the United States.
That is very well said. The world is looking very dangerous because clever manipulators preyed on vacant minds in angry people. There again is the analogy with Adolf Hitler.
Apart from tax, that we will come to, these 800 pound gorillas show their contempt for the law in many areas, not least on laws made to protect the rights to property of others – especially intellectual property. To what extent are these outfits – like YouTube – based on misappropriation of property, that is, theft? They don’t generate knowledge. They process it. They then traffic in the ideas of others. Government is there to preserve the value of knowledge by granting short term monopolies in the form of patents and copyright. But Xerox, VCR’s and cassettes made copying, and piracy, the done thing. Someone said: ‘We can’t stop copying on the Internet because the Internet is a copying machine’. The Huffington Post picked the eyes out of news stories and gave grudging links to the source. Google scanned every book it could lay its hands on. Apple said: ‘Rip, Mix, Burn. After all, it’s your music.’ Steve Jobs decried digital thievery while enabling piracy.
Foer says that the big techs are presiding over the collapse of the economic value of knowledge, and that by collapsing the value of knowledge, they have diminished its quality. When newspapers charge readers, Google and Facebook seek to bury them. They of course don’t pay for any of their stuff. Foer says:
It’s galling to watch Zuckerberg walk away from the catastrophic collapse of the news business and the degradation of American civic culture, because his site has played such a seminal role in both. Though Zuckerberg denies it, the process of guiding the public to information is a source of tremendous cultural and political power.
And it has produced the disaster of Trump and his family, and ‘the degradation of American civic culture.’
Silicon Valley is waging war on professional writers. They attack copyright laws that seek to allow authors to make a living from writing. This is another instance of what Foer refers to as Silicon Valley’s ‘fake populism’. (Although, when you look at Trump and Farage, not to mention Mussolini and Hitler, you wonder what ‘authentic populism’ might look like.)
They are like lawless cowboys in the badlands. Google’s lead lawyer said: ‘Google’s leadership doesn’t care terribly much about precedent or law.’ Foer is to the point. ‘Google had plotted an intellectual heist of historic proportions.’
The triumphant herd
The author does not deal with the misery that people inflict on each other on Facebook and the like when the herd instinct reaches its logical conclusion. The lynch mob is the downside of empowering the crowd. But a recurring theme in the book is the way the big techs operate to destroy the individual. If you believe that respect for the worth of each one of us is fundamental to what we call civilisation, then organised and mechanised attempts to undermine the individual are attempts to undermine our civilisation. In the process, they are destroying the very idea of privacy. So are their addicts, inflicting their iPhone conversations on anyone else on the train or in the café. Courtesy as well as privacy goes straight out the window. The assaults on our civilisation look to be succeeding.
Facebook claims to advance the transparency of each of us. ‘Transparency’ is a weasel word, but what I think it means here is that Facebook wants to look straight through us. Well, we know what that means. It is at best demeaning. ‘The theory holds that the sunshine of sharing our intimate details will disinfect the moral mess of our lives.’ To the extent that that proposition is not pure bullshit, it is as dangerous as it is disingenuous.
When you see people unable to leave their iPhones alone, even while walking against a red light, you wonder what life may hold for them. They look like addicts and they act like addicts. And, like Coke and McDonalds, the big techs target kids, especially the spoiled kids.
‘The tech companies are destroying something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation.’ The author quotes Hampshire on Turing – he had ‘a gift for solitary thinking.’ Pascal said: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ If he was right, we are in big trouble.
Facebook celebrates the crowd – or the herd, or the mob, or the populus. They have, or affect to have, a ‘faith in the wisdom of crowds.’ Silicon Valley came to power on the basis of its anti-elitism….Silicon Valley views its role in history as that of the disruptive agent that shatters the grip of the sclerotic, self-perpetuating mediocrity that constitutes the American elite.’ That is of course bullshit, but the link with Trump is plain, and the author makes it. ‘With not quite the same furore as our current president, Silicon Valley came to power on the basis of its anti-elitism.’
‘Elites had a chokehold on the country that prevented the masses from expressing their creativity.’ That’s even worse bullshit, as the blog phenomenon sinks fast. But some people fell for it, and they elected Trump – whose principal helper was a Judas of the elect, an officer in the navy, a Harvard MBA, and a partner of Goldman Sachs. This side of heaven, it’s hard to get much more elect than that.
Goodbye to truth
If the stuff they put out is stolen or just second-hand, and people are silly enough to take their ‘news’ from it, what chance does truth have? The sulky herd just drifts along with whatever is ‘trending.’ ‘Facebook and Google have created a world where old boundaries between fact and falsehood have eroded, where misinformation spreads virally.’ The result, with the help of Facebook and Russia, was Trump – the ultimate threat to truth.
Tax? They don’t pay it. Don’t be so silly. They’re takers, not givers. The year Facebook went public they recorded $1.1 billion in American profits. They did not pay one cent of income tax. They claimed one deduction, the unkindest cut of all. Facebook wrote off the stock options it had given to the spoiled brats who were its executives. These cowboys make Gordon Gecko look like a Methodist lay preacher.
Well, it’s not pretty is it? I gather you will get much of the same from another book, Taplin, Move Fast and Break Things. According to a review, Mr Taplin says that Google is ‘in the extraction industry.’ Its business is ‘to extract as much personal data from as many people in the world at the lowest possible price and to resell that data to as many companies as possible at the highest possible price.’
There were straws in the wind. About eight years ago I listened to an expert at Oxford University say that the BBC employed four people to see that its name came up on top on Google. Why would a government entity need to do that? About four years ago, I started publishing books on Amazon and Apple. I was feeling fine until I sampled the wares of some recommended cover designers – they were all into Mills and Boon with heavy breathing (‘bodice-ripping’ is I think the phrase), and third rate science fiction.
There have been some pluses. Microsoft was brought down when the lies of Bill Gates were revealed by his emails. The blogosphere should hold no threat to the press – it’s there for authorial wannabes and political nuts. Quality papers like The New York Times have been given a boost by the disaster called Trump. The printed page is making a big comeback at least in books. Sensible people understand the need for our government to answer to a decent press and not just nuts on the Net. Only the ideologically bereft would seek to undermine government bodies like the ABC or SBS in this challenged climate.
But these other greedy parasites remain, a sinister version of Big Brother, draining our youth, minds, and manners in ways that we can’t detect. The E U looks to be the only power on earth capable of standing up to the big techs. Knowing that their propaganda firepower is unlimited, I suggest that we start by installing these big techs as Public Enemies Number One in place of Telstra and the big banks. We need to get the best minds in the world to work out how to deal with this threat before its various tumours become inoperable.
PS. Amazon has just sent me a monthly royalty notification. A bumper month! $4.26. US $, old boy!