Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy
It should have been so good, but it all went so bad. The story about the roots of the internet often starts with the somewhat odd rendezvous between the interests of the military and a counterculture wanting easier access to more free information. Technological victories combined with governmental support and contributions from innovative parts of hippie culture constituted the foundation for what we call the internet. But something went wrong along the way. Somehow we did not get that easy access in a decentralised form. Instead we got a few companies who centralise most of it – close to a monopoly situation guided by the libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand. In the book Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin intends to find out what went so terribly wrong.
Taplin has a very interesting and motley past as manager for Bob Dylan, film producer (Mean Streets, Wim Wender’s film Until the End of the World, and others) and media innovator. Thus he is a person deeply involved in the creative process of making pieces of art. There is, by the way, no doubt that Taplin in many ways is leading a personal retaliation action against the internet-mastodons. His main point is that the big companies – Google, Facebook and Amazon – have made disastrous conditions for content providers, from musicians to filmmakers to journalists and authors. In Taplin’s opinion, art is subject to a colossal pressure in the era of monopoly-internet.
«There is no doubt that Taplin in many ways is leading a personal retaliation action against the internet-mastodons.»
Firstly, a few companies have enormous market shares in their industry. For example Amazon covers 70 per cent of the e-book market, while Facebook has 77 per cent of the market for mobile social media. Consequently, content providers are forced to cooperate with the mastodons in order to make their way.
Secondly, these enormous market shares paired with clever lobbying bring about such political power that the giga-companies escape the kind of law making that regulates business. According to Taplin, the state acts differently towards the internet-mastodons compared to all other industries.
Thirdly, the big companies invest very little to produce content themselves. They leave that to the users, and thereby create a culture where clicks are the only thing that count for both the users and the companies. Taplin considers that those companies tear down the existing infrastructures to facilitate the production of something that catches the attention of the user more easily. That results in more clicks, more big data is generated, and as a consequence the companies can sell more and better-aimed advertisements, which is the crucial factor for the continued growth of the mastodons.
We make the problem
Taplin expands his argument to include more than the creative artists, who are the ones really suffering according to him. However, we are all part of the misery. «Vanity overrules the wish of a private life,» says Kevin Kelly, chief editor for the magazine Wired. Jonathan Taplin is himself not without blame. He too is a user of social media and leaves data behind him in order to share vacation photos with friends and tell about his everyday activities. This is probably a point in itself. That we can be fairly critical to the new media, but that the media realm is arranged in such a way that one aught to be extremely careful and separate partly from the masses to avoid the platforms of the technology mastodons. In other words: we spread our data in social media, fully aware of the fact that this data is the core of the mastodons’ business model. Without big data there is no unique access point at which advertisers can aim their message and consequently no billions of dollars of revenue for the internet companies. «If you don’t pay for it, you’re not the customer but the product,» is the way it is put in the book.
«Art is subject to a colossal pressure in the era of monopoly-internet.» (opens in a new window)
I know a professor at the university at Berkeley who calls this phenomenon «the sweat of work». That means that companies get the users to deliver the content, and afterwards they themselves can harvest the fruits of the work. It is rather a paradox that the university at Berkeley, otherwise funded on counterculture and critical thinking, has chosen Google as the mail platform for all students and employees.
«If you don’t pay for it, you’re not the customer but the product.»
Romantic or real critic?
Taplin’s book is in many ways a vivacious vendetta written fifty-fifty on indignation and passion. There are huge amounts of quotations that are sometimes rather redundant. One might get the impression that Taplin himself cannot quite take the responsibility for his hefty reasoning. At the same time he often falls into anecdotal stories, particularly about his time as a rock-band manager. The reason for bringing forth these anecdotes is probably to stress the importance of achievements in art, but they have a peculiar distracting effect, and tend to diminish the force of the author’s critical approach.
Neither am I convinced that the situation is as simple as Taplin shows. You can for instance find a lot of content produced by YouTube as well as Amazon. Of course you can criticise this for lack of artistic value, but that is another matter. And whether or not the culture of Silicon Valley is based on antidemocratic, libertarian and almost oligarchy-acclaiming ideas is perhaps somewhat speculative. In any case it’s a fact that big investor in Facebook and founder of PayPal Peter Thiel, about whom Taplin has a lot of negative remarks, moved from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles recently, because in his opinion the culture among the entrepreneurs in the valley had become too leftist.
Maybe Taplin is just as crude about the actual situation and just as romantic about the old days. Nevertheless, he has written an utterly relevant and thought-provoking book – a book that should inspire discussions, hopefully in political circles.