There is no “Big Tech”
This is going to be a contrarian post. It’s going to make some people mad, so I want to toss some caveats your way right up front:
- I do not think Facebook is a good company, and I totally agree something needs to be done to bring them in line with some kind of human moral behavior. Their behavior over the last five or so years has been reprehensible, and it’s clear they’re going to do absolutely nothing about it unless forced. (I also think Zuckerberg is a an absolute tool. But what would you expect from a guy who became a zillionaire from an application that started out as a piece of software that was meant to rank “hot college babes”?)
- I also do not think Apple, Google, Amazon, and Twitter management are without flaw. Nor do I think nothing needs to be done about the areas in which their corporate behavior impinges on the public sphere. I think government action is the only thing with a remote chance of reining in the over-reach of giant multinationals.
- It’s clear to anyone with a brain that big tech corporations (as opposed to what the media refers to by the intentional scare term of “Big Tech,” of which more later) engage in questionably-legal and definitely-immoral practices and need to have the whip cracked over them.
I want to be clear with all this up front because a lot of what I’m about to say will sound like high tech industry cheerleading. People who know me as an individual will know it’s not; they know I’m incredibly cynical when it comes to big corporations in general, and tech upper management in particular. But for those few who read this who don’t know me, it’s important we set that groundwork. Okay? Okay!
To our muttons!
Lately there has been a lot of talk about the power of “Big Tech” and how it has “monopoly power” and needs to be “broken up”, like Ma Bell back in the day. (For you young’uns, that was what AT&T was back before the Nixon Administration in the 1970s. And if you’re wondering how it got “broken up” when it’s still around and still huge, well, I’ll get to that.)
The problem here is, while there are some tech companies that hold a scary amount of power in the public sector and over consumers (as noted above!), there is no monopolistic “Big Tech” equivalent to Ma Bell or Big Oil or Big Pharma that the government can go after cleanly to “break up” in a similar way. Sorry. It’s just not true, as much as crusading-but-tech-ignorant journalists would like it to be. And there’s a few reasons why.
Yes, there are some tech companies that are “big”. No question. But no one has defined “Big Tech” ever. People just group a list of companies under the rubric of “Big Tech” and assume we all know what “Big Tech” is. The problem here is, unless you define the term, it’s meaningless. Or rather, it only means what each person who reads it thinks it means, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.
When you ask someone what “Big Oil” means, people say, “The few companies that have a monopoly on oil drilling, production, and distribution.” When you ask what “Big Pharma” means, they say, “The few companies that have a monopoly on drug research, creation, manufacturing, and sales.” But if you ask what “Big Tech” is, people will probably give you a list of companies, and probably not the same list! Apple, Facebook, and Google, probably, but then all bets are off. What about Salesforce? Cisco? IBM? (I’ve never heard anyone talking about IBM when speaking of “Big Tech”, but IBM is the largest [in employees] and oldest tech company in the world!) I read an article where Spotify (4500 employees, €6.5 billion) was listed as a “Big Tech” company that needed reining in. What about Twitter? Or Hewlett Packard? PornHub? If you don’t define the term, it could include any tech company.
When you are asked in grammar school to define “color”, you don’t stand up and say, “green, red, and blue.” No; you give the dictionary definition and then use a color as an example. Facebook or Apple or Google can be examples of “Big Tech,” but not the definition of it. And until someone defines the damn term, it might as well not exist.
I know this may seem pedantic, but seriously: What is it: “Big tech companies that are doing stuff we don’t like”? Tech companies of a certain size? (That should include companies like IBM and Cisco and HP, when it clearly doesn’t.) Tech companies that only operate in certain areas? Which areas would those be, exactly? Apple is what we in tech call a “systems company,” which means they make both hardware and the software that runs on their hardware. Amazon is a “services company;” they provide services, ie a web site that does their delivery stuff, as well as their cloud computing service AWS, and other stuff. Amazon and Apple are not in the same business (though they do overlap in some areas, and yes they try to steal customers in those areas where they do). Amazon doesn’t make iPhones; Apple doesn’t threaten Amazon’s core physical object sales-and-distribution model.
Similarly Google, while also a services company, provides services in totally different areas than Amazon. They provide software tools: Their famous search engine, of course; their mapping tool with all the data they’ve gleaned from that; their analytics tools (something many folks might not be aware of), which allow folks like me to analyze web traffic. Twitter, a different kind of software company, provides an application and web site, and their revenue model is based on ads and (probably) monetizing their very valuable user data. They filter news to their members, and allow what we in tech call one-to-one and one-to-many interactions via their 280 character tweets. This is very different from the services Google offers, as you might imagine.
Think of these four companies and try to squeeze them into one box in the same way you can squeeze BP, Exxon-Mobile, Shell Oil, and Chevron under the heading of “Big Oil”. Yeah, they’re all tech companies, sure, but the things they sell and do are very, very different. Grouping them together would be like grouping Dyson vacuums, Thomasville furniture, and GE refrigerators together because their “Big Household goods that cost more than $300”.
“Big Tech,” in other words, is meaningless. It’s a scare term that echos “Big Oil” and “Big Pharma” that the press uses to help increase clicks, views, and sales. It’s lazy, reductionist, and doesn’t help address the very real problems in the high tech world.
Which brings us to the “monopoly” issue. Which is just as dicey for almost the same reasons.
As I promised, O Young Ones: Back in the day was Alexander Graham Bell. He created a device and a bunch of patents, and his clever father-in-law created a company called (imagine!) Bell Telephone Company in 18-friggin’-77. Yuppers; the 19th Century. And for durn nigh 100 years, this systems company (Remember those? Provide both the hardware and the software, in this case telephone service.) had a full monopoly on phones and phone service in the US. You wanted a phone, you got a Bell phone. You wanted phone service, you got it through Bell. The history is of course way more complicated, but that’s the gist.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Ma Bell (as it was called) got broken up by anti-trust legislation during the Nixon Administration. This led to the AT&T we all know today. A bunch of “Baby Bells” were created, and after several decades and a bunch of re-orgs and buy-outs, we have one huge AT&T that looks a lot to me like the Ma Bell of yesteryear. But I digress.
So that’s a monopoly in small: If you want it, only one company has it. You want sneakers (trainers, if you’re in England)? Sorry, mate; Nikes and nothing else. No Adidas, New Balance, Puma, Air Jordans or whatever. Nikes. Period. End of story. A car? Ford. No Hondas, Subarus, Chevys, Porsches, or anything else. A Ford. In any color you want so long as it’s black. Etc. That’s a monopoly.
Now folks are saying “Big Tech” (which, as noted above, hasn’t been defined) has “a monopoly”, which “has to be reined in”. Okay, fine. I’ve already agreed that some big tech companies need to be reined in. But I’ve completely deconstructed the “Big Tech” label. So what do these various “big tech” companies people always squawk about—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple—have a monopoly on, exactly? I promise I’m not being disingenuous here; I’ve given this quite a bit of thought. I agree that (for example) the immoral behavior of Facebook, who have allowed neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other violent groups bent on illegal acts to run rampant, needs to be reined in. People are saying, “They’re a monopoly! Use anti-trust laws!” And as a tech nerd who’s been doing this for 30+ years I say, “Fine; a monopoly of what, exactly?”
And that applies to all the companies people mention when they speak about “Big Tech”. Apple has a monopoly on, um, well…not smartphones. They have a walled garden for their iOS apps, so I guess they have a “monopoly” on iOS apps. But they aren’t the one creating the apps, so that’s not the case. A monopoly on downloadable music? Not really, no; people can get streaming music lots of places these days. So Apple is not a monopoly of anything that I can define, and you can bet if the government—a bunch of technoboneheads as a rule—tried to take Apple down via monopolistic anti-trust laws, their lawyers would eviscerate the government. And to what end? What is the goal in calling Apple “Big Tech” and a “monopoly”? Best define your terms before you go after someone just because you don’t like what they’re doing!
Same with Amazon. There are two areas where Amazon is dominant: Cloud services, and their goods delivery system. In Cloud services they certainly hold a large lead, but they’re not a monopoly; several other companies (including IBM, where I work) are working hard to cut into their market share. In goods delivery yes, I can accept they have a monopoly. It’s being cut into at the margins by various factors—local stores arranging their own deliveries or curbside pickups, companies like DoorDash doing restaurant deliveries so as to avoid Google Eats, etc. And Amazon works like gangbusters to maintain their lead in this area, no question; this whole “scan your trunk” business creeps me out no end. And I’m not sure how I feel about “delivery by drone”. Still, I think government would have tough sledding proving monopoly here, given Amazon isn’t manufacturing the goods, but merely acting as a jobber, as it were. A middleman. They use UPS and FedEx for much of the actual deliveries.
Another factor that makes tech different from Ma Bell or Big Oil or Big Pharma is its volatile nature. My favorite job in tech was working for SiliconGraphics, or SGI. When I was there in the early 1990s, we called ourselves “the best computer company on the planet,” and we believed it. We had Kenny Loggins (“I’m alright”; “Danger Zone”) play at one of our corporate events. At another we had Patty LaBelle. Our hardware was used for the first Toy Story movie. We built a beautiful new campus in Mt. View.
Which is now occupied by Google.
And that’s the point. In the 1990s Steve Jobs announced a joint effort with Microsoft where Bill Gates gave Apple about $150 million dollars to help save Apple’s corporate bacon. Microsoft was flying high, Apple was barely scraping along, Jobs had been called back as “interim CEO” (“interim CEO for life” many in tech joked), and many though Apple was dead. But then came the iMac, the Think Different campaign, and the iPod, and now do you pay more attention to Microsoft product announcements or Apple product announcements? In the 90s, Motorola was king of the cell phone world, along with Nokia and a few others. What about now? In 1995, Google didn’t exist. The Web barely did. Amazon didn’t. Zuckerberg was 11. Salesforce, which now has a giant tower that looks like a vibrator in downtown San Francisco, was still 4 years in the future.
My point is tech is absurdly volatile. Companies can go from giants to penny stock jokes in the blink of an eye. This does not Not NOT mean I think we should ignore their horrible actions; just that I think we need to have some perspective and be smart about how we respond instead of using scare terms like “Big Tech” and deploying monopoly busting anti-trust tools that might not even work.
Which brings us—finally—to Facebook.
IMO Facebook is evil. I’m not a believer of original sin in the religious sense, but even so I would say Facebook’s current situation is a consequence of the original sin of its own birth as a web site for finding “hot chicks” at Harvard by an entitled immature straight white incel tool. While it became, for a while, a home for family and friends to exchange pictures, information, gossip, and news, it (unsurprisingly) evolved into a friendly home, news source, and place of organization for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, incels looking for their fellow travelers, and other odious persons.
Zuckerberg could easily have stopped this. Despite what he, Jack Dorsey, and other high tech execs say, it’s not that difficult to put hard guidelines in place and then tell your staff to follow them. As a tech writer, I’ve had such edicts passed down to me many, many times, and I’ve followed them even when my personal opinion on them has varied considerable from the corporate guidelines. Zuckerberg could have disallowed all advertising that had unverified info in it. Or allowed his employees to delete any material that related to white supremacy (so long as Facebook defined it clearly). He chose not to. This is either greed, moral cowardice, or approval; there is no fourth option.
And as far as a “monopoly”, if Facebook is one, what is it a monopoly of? Social media platforms? (No.) Social media personal information sharing platforms? (Again, no.) Then WTF is it, exactly? You won’t get any argument from me that it needs to be regulated in some way, but using monopoly laws aren’t going to work if you can’t define it as a monopoly, and if a technonerd like me can’t, do you think Congressional luddites confronted by Facebook asshole lawyers will be able to? It is to laugh.
“So where does this all leave us?” you might reasonably ask. Well, I’m glad you did!
- To review: There is no “Big Tech”; just some big tech company that need some serious slapping down
- Each of those companies needs an individual approach to said slapping, not “they’re a monopoly; they need to be broken up!” because in tech that’s not likely to work
- Facebook is a big problem that needs addressing in serious ways, and not through anti-trust laws unless those laws are severely rewritten with modern tech companies in mind
One final note: As I noted earlier, tech is furiously volatile. Right now there is some bright person out there figuring out how to supplant Facebook, or Amazon, or Google. I don’t know who, or where, or even in what damn country, but they’re out there plotting to be the next Salesforce or whatever. Because that’s the way tech works. And instead of solely focusing on my third bullet point, we need to also write laws and create guidelines that allow those folks to flourish and not get tromped down by the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys of the world. To allow them to build their own companies and force Facebook and Amazon and Twitter to the side, or to create completely new markets in tech that we can’t even imagine right now. To develop products that are as mind-bending to us as the iPhone would have been to Doug in 1995.
Because the real answer to fighting these jerk-weeds is not just to play catch-up and try to dig them out after they’re already entrenched, but to help other people from getting squashed by the entrenched jerk-weeds. To not use scare terms like “Big Tech” and broad-but-ultimately-inapplicable “monopoly” laws, but rather focus on the (boring, tedious, complicated, but necessary) details of what’s going on and fight them on those terms. To bring a friggin’ gun to a gun fight, not a tennis racquet to a baseball game.
And with that, I have blathered enough.