The internet, defined as the network switched on in January 1983, is now 34 years old. When it began, it was a gloriously decentralised, creative, non-commercial system that evoked in many of its early users utopian hopes about liberation, empowerment, creativity and sticking it to The Man. In those heady days, only a few sceptics wondered how long it would take for capitalism to get a grip on it. Now we know: it took only 21 years.
Opinions vary about the timing, of course. For my money, the critical year was 2004, the year Google had its IPO, Facebook was launched and the business model that became known as “surveillance capitalism” really got a grip on the network. This is the model that provides supposedly free services to users in return for “consent” to mine and exploit their personal data and digital trails in order to target adverts at them.
Jonathan Taplin is an American academic who has also been a successful music and film producer. He has worked with Bob Dylan and the Band and produced Martin Scorsese’s first major film (Mean Streets) plus 12 other feature films (including The Last Waltz, Until the End of the World, Under Fire and To Die For). His films have been nominated for Academy and Golden Globe awards and chosen for the Cannes film festival.
To this impressive list he has added a bracing, unromantic account of how the internet was captured. It’s the story of how a number of libertarian entrepreneurs began, in the 1990s, to hijack the original distributed vision of the network and in the process created the three giant monopolies – Google, Facebook and Amazon – that now determine the future of all our media industries and may, in the end, also determine how democracy ends.
The title comes from an exhortation of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to his employees. For him, it was an expression of the hacker ethic common in Silicon Valley, where Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” is the prevailing religion. But in Taplin’s account, Zuck is really just the hapless schmuck who was led astray by more sinister – and forceful – creatures, such as the entrepreneur Sean Parker and PayPal founder, Peter Thiel, the guy who has become Donald Trump’s tech Savonarola.
Much has been made in previous histories of Silicon Valley’s counter-cultural origins. Taplin finds other, less agreeable roots, notably in the writings of Ayn Rand, a flake of Cadbury proportions who had an astonishing impact on many otherwise intelligent individuals. These include Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over events leading to the banking collapse of 2008, and Thiel, who made an early fortune out of PayPal and was the first investor in Facebook. Rand believed that “achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life”. She had no time for altruism, government or anything else that might interfere with capitalism red in tooth and claw.
Neither does Thiel. For him, “competition is for losers”. He believes in investing only in companies that have the potential to become monopolies and he thinks monopolies are good for society. “Americans mythologise competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines,” he once wrote. “Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away.”
The three great monopolies of the digital world have followed the Thiel playbook and Taplin does a good job of explaining how each of them works and how, strangely, their vast profits are never “competed away”. He also punctures the public image so assiduously fostered by Google and Facebook – that they are basically cool tech companies run by good chaps (and they are still mainly chaps, btw) who are hellbent on making the world a better place – whereas, in fact, they are increasingly hard to distinguish from the older brutes of the capitalist jungle.
They throw their weight around in a distinctly old-fashioned way; for example, Google’s expenditure on political lobbying and the “revolving door”, via which its executives and government officials change places, would make Diageo, BP, Unilever or Anglo American green with envy. The Russian hack of former White House adviser John Podesta’s emails revealed that Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, was a permanent resident in Hillary Clinton’s inbox. And so on. In that context, the one thing to be said about Amazon is that what you see is what you get: Jeff Bezos, its founder, never pretended to be a nice guy. Amazon plays hardball in public, whereas the others like to do it behind the scenes.
Taplin’s book ranges widely over the digital landscape and ventures where most commentators rarely go. He looks, for example, at the economic impact of the digital giants and argues convincingly that they are, basically, just engines for increasing inequality. Even as the tech sector booms, we have stagnant living standards, rising inequality and a growing “precariat” in the gig economy. The revenues of Google and Facebook are colossal, and yet they employ very few people in comparison to normal companies: tech firms represent 21% of the 500 largest American firms, but employ only 3% of the workforce.
Similarly, these companies have huge mountains of cash, but invest only a fraction of these reserves in ventures that might create new industries (and jobs). Instead, their executives sit and watch their stockholdings grow exponentially, with the result that only three of the 10 richest men in the Forbes 400 list (Warren Buffett and the two Koch brothers) have not made their money from digital technology.
Move Fast and Break Things is a timely and useful book because it provides an antidote to the self-serving narrative energetically cultivated by the digital monopolies. They have had an easy ride for too long and democracies will, sooner or later, have to rein them in. The first step down that road is to stop viewing them through rose-tinted spectacles and see them for what they really are: enormously powerful corporations that move fast and break things, while minimising their tax bills and shirking the responsibilities that come with their media power.
• Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin is published by Pan Macmillan