the five



I have seen a lot of talk lately from various writers (e.g. Franklin Foer, Farhad Manjoo) about “the Five” – the five highest-valued companies in the world, which are all tech companies and which seem to be a new breed of corporate giant, different from anything we’ve seen before.

(The most common list is FAMGA – Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple – although sometimes one hears it as the FAANGs, with Netflix swapped in for Microsoft)

I am definitely curious, and worried, where the Five will end up taking us.  The writers sounding the alarm about the five make some good points.  However, I want to air a few frustrations with the anti-Five stuff:

1. It’s both cute and frustrating to see mainstream liberal journalists reinvent anarchism on the fly, apparently without realizing they’re doing it.  The critics of the Five make the true and important point that the Five are less like traditional corporations and more like governments.  Unlike most other companies, you could not accurately describe Amazon by pointing to any one core service or product it provides; instead it is simply a force that does many things under one name – less a thing like McDonald’s and more a thing like the government of France.  The anti-Five writers say this lack of unifying purpose is disturbing, especially when combined with great power.  But how does this differ from the governments we already have?  That is, in a world with so many powerful governments, why should we be disturbed by the rise of few more?

2. The obvious answer is “governments are accountable to the people.”  But how much do the anti-Five writers really believe this?  Consider one of their other complaints, that Facebook’s “News Feed” (often referred to as though it’s some sort of news network, rather than just a dashboard) influences public opinion heavily and for the worse.  Perhaps it even undermines democracy – all these people get fake news from Facebook, and next thing you know, they’re voting for Donald Trump!

But if the people are this easily deceived/confused (remember, Facebook does not present itself as a news source, comes with no imprimatur of quality … ), how on earth are we to expect them to steer the government sensibly under normal conditions?  Manjoo has likened Facebook to a “Ministry of Information,” because it has now said it will take some responsibility for the content that appears on it, and … oh no, does that mean Facebook will control what billions of people read?  Well, yes, but only if they’re looking at Facebook, the exact same way that CNN and Fox can control what millions of people think by tweaking their programming.

There is nothing internally wrong with this kind of consequentialist thinking, wherein one acknowledges that most people get their news from a single extremely fallible source, and goes on to hold that source responsible for electoral outcomes.  But it does mean that you’ve let the people off the hook, because apparently “changing the channel” is beyond them.  You can be a grim realist and concede that democracy is pretty fucked, but if so, we don’t have much more control over our government than we do over the Five, do we?

(Besides, we do have a kind of control over the Five.  Unlike governments, they don’t have a monopoly on the use of force […yet], and cannot take money from consumers or Wall Street that is not willingly given.  If they turned really evil, it would be possible to boycott them en masse.  I’m not saying it would happen, but it’d be possible.)

3. We should not be too quick to say that the dominance of the Five over other tech companies is reflective of some sort of pernicious market power.  Remember the other criticism people make of the tech industry, that it’s full of bullshit startups that don’t do any real, technical innovation?  For all their other flaws, the Five are doing real stuff, and many others are not.  Manjoo tells the story of Snapchat, which got bigger and bigger until Facebook decided to swat it down by releasing its own Facebook version of Snapchat’s “Stories” feature.  Which sounds like it was extremely easy, because the Stories feature wasn’t a technology, just an informal idea that anyone could code up on their own.

Snapchat, as Manjoo described it, was not a technology company.  It was like an automotive startup whose popular new product is a car with a cool, sexy paint job.  Nothing new under the hood that would be hard to copy, just a set of colors people like, ones that have never been done before in quite the same style.  If Ford or Toyota now were to come out with a similarly painted car of their own, would it be evidence of the deplorable dominance of Big Car over smaller upstarts?

There are bad arguments against the Big Five and good arguments, but a more general question would be how do we tell if they’re taking us in a direction we don’t want to go in, and how could we stop them if they were.

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