The world has never witnessed monopolies this powerful or this diverse. Like many commentators, Foroohar has concluded that the tech giants must be broken up, like the rail monopolies of America’s Gilded Age. Whether this is possible in the face of the political, commercial, legal and intellectual power of Silicon Valley remains to be seen. I’m not optimistic. Bezos’s next ambition is to conquer space. Cue the Imperial March.
Foroohar’s footnotes alone are a treasury of online resources. She hits some strange notes, but she’s a sharp and personable narrator, writing with opinionated, sweeping style. This an important book for anyone engaged with one of the most pressing realities of our times.
As a global business columnist for the FT, Foroohar is well placed to deepen her account with amusing personal stories and tasty gossip. She was once interviewed for a communications job at Google, which — marvellously — turned out to involve following one of the founders around and turning his thoughts into documents that could be communicated to the rest of the company. And she cites many sources, both named and anonymous, with stories about being screwed over by Big Tech, or about witnessing its leaders’ majestically entitled tech-bro behaviour. (Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, when challenged about sleeping with his female engineers, responded: ‘Why shouldn’t I? They’re my employees.’) ‘Don’t be evil’, of course, used to be the company motto of Google — until it realised that evil, in the form of relentless surveillance and targeted adverts, makes more money.
Foroohar reports that the industry has fought to protect interests that boost its profits but hurt society. They have made it harder to secure patents, to the detriment of small companies and individual inventors. They have defended their right to pay tax in overseas, low-tax jurisdictions, rather than in the markets where they make their money. And platforms such as Google and Facebook have shirked responsibility for the content and actions of their users...
The result of all this is that monopolies thrive, innovation is strangled, and false information and vicious content befouls the public and political spheres, while the tech groups’ founders, managers and shareholders get richer.
The great thing about her book is that it breaks the mesmerising spell that the tech giants seem to have cast upon governments, mass media and users everywhere. The beginning of wisdom in this matter is to realise that Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, Uber et al are just very large corporations that do what corporations have done from time immemorial – exploit resources in order to generate profit. The only differences between them and the corporate giants of old are the nature of the resources they have appropriated and the grotesque profit margins that they obtain.