I intended to write on this topic last week, but then—well, you know—the national security chiefs declared that Russians had definitely tried to impact our 2016 elections; there was the horrific school shooting in Florida; thirteen Russians were indicted by a grand jury (remember, a grand jury consists of ordinary citizens, chosen by lottery, not by political hacks); there were new allegations of Presidential philandering; and no White House condemnation of Russian meddling in our elections nor any initiatives to protect us in the future. There were so many opportunities to comment on events that ricocheted off the headlines.
And this week promises to offer yet another dizzying set of topics for discussion: student voices, gun control, horrors of the ongoing violence in Syria. But, whatever the rest of this week might bring, I thought it was important to pursue my original plan and examine a subtle undercurrent in our way of life that constant chaos in the news leaves little time to consider.
In a painstakingly detailed and insightful article by Scott Galloway, I was reminded of the power I have willingly ceded to tech giants for the purpose of convenience, community and consumerism. Admittedly, this topic is usually way on my back burner, and yet as I read Galloway’s article, I became increasingly depressed, frustrated and angry at the often-unseen influence these corporations have over my life.
Galloway points out that over the past decade, the “Big Four,” Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have aggregated more economic value than nearly any other commercial entity in history.
How big are they? Amazon is worth more to the stock market than Walmart, Costco, T. J. Maxx, Target, Ross, Best Buy, Ulta, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Saks/Lord & Taylor, Dillard’s, JCPenney, and Sears combined.
Meanwhile, Facebook and Google (now known as Alphabet) are together worth $1.3 trillion. If you combined the world’s top five advertising agencies (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, and Dentsu) with five major media companies (Disney, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, CBS, and Viacom) and five major communications companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish) you’d still have only 90 percent of what Google and Facebook are worth together.
With a market cap of nearly $900 billion, Apple is the most valuable public company, bringing in $46 billion in profits in 2016, more than any other American company.
In order to make the pervasive power of these institutions more easily understood, in his book, The Four, Galloway links up the mission of these companies with basic drives in the human psyche:
Google appeals to the brain, offering knowledge to everyone, regardless of background or education level.
Facebook appeals to the heart. Feeling loved is the key to well-being and Facebook gives its 2.1 billion monthly active users tools to fuel our need to love and be loved by others. As Galloway says, “It’s satisfying to rediscover someone we went to high school with. It’s good to know we can keep in touch with friends who move away.”
Amazon is like the large intestine of the consumptive self. It has adopted the best strategy in the history of business—”more for less”—and deployed it more effectively and efficiently than any other firm in history.
The second-most-powerful instinct after survival is procreation. As sexual creatures, we want to signal how elegant, smart, and creative we are. We want to signal power. Sex is irrational, luxury is irrational, and Apple learned very early on that it could appeal to our need to be desirable—and in turn increase its profit margins—by placing print ads in Vogue, having supermodels at product launches, and building physical stores as glass temples to the brand.”
In the news recently, Facebook—along with Twitter and other social media platforms—has been featured for ways in which it has been exploited in the scandal involving Russian meddling in our elections. Guarding privacy and (not incidentally) profits, Facebook has been slow to respond, despite threats this poses to national security. There are countless ways the profit motive manipulates individuals in the court of public opinion. The Russian meddling is just one such example.
Galloway draws a useful comparison: “If you want to manufacture and sell a Popsicle to children, you must undergo numerous expensive FDA tests and provide thorough labeling that outlines the ingredients, calories, and sugar content of the treat. But what warning labels are included in Instagram’s user agreement? We’ve now seen abundant research indicating that social- media platforms are making teens more depressed. Ask yourself: If ice cream were making teens more prone to suicide, would we shrug and seat the CEO of Breyer’s next to the president at dinners in Silicon Valley?”
The article goes on to describe the low tax rates for these corporations, their negative impact on the size and strength of the middle class, and anti-trust implications—hence the need to break them up. But, the undercurrent of the article is to alert the reader to the unrestrained power of these hi-tech companies with their high-sounding “Think Different” or “Don’t Be Evil” slogans that distract us from what is actually happening on the ground.
Like Galloway, I want to be clear: this post is distributed through Google’s algorithms; I connect with friends on Facebook; I sell my books on Amazon; I use my smart phone daily. But, I shudder to think how much these tech giants are not only enhancing my life, but directing my actions, determining my personal connections and influencing the very way I think. Every so often, we need to break from the all-consuming chaos that surrounds us each day, take a step back and consider how much personal power we have lost—and how urgent it is that we seek to reclaim it.