Earlier this week Apple became a trillion dollar company, an estimate close to the combined value of America’s ‘big four’ banks, and the single highest valuation for a company in history. A striking graphic in the New York Times shows just how hard it is for a lay person to grasp the scale of this achievement. Apple is, for instance, now worth more than all the car manufacturers worldwide, and nearly as much as all of its airlines and aviation companies; it is even worth more than the entire US media industry.
Apple’s dominance is a sign of the times. The only companies not dwarfed by its success are those who adapted earliest to the emerging post-industrial landscape, i.e. other digital behemoths. (Google (Alphabet), Microsoft and Amazon have a combined value of US$2.5 trillion.) But such outsize companies also produce unusual liabilities. Not only are each of them far “too big to fail” – in the depressing parlance of the 2008 financial crisis – but they exercise far too much influence over the culture that is meant to regulate them. By itself, this is hardly new – rail, automobile and aviation companies did the same for most of the twentieth century – but superstar companies like these now wield similar levels of influence globally.
Consider, for example, the consequences of having the Internet – for nearly all intents and purposes – operating under the protections of the US First Amendment. Whatever harms this has entailed, it has also enabled the spread of personal freedoms and democratic values. Less ambiguously, particularly since the rise of social media, information has merged with US controlled entertainment to a point at which most of what we see, read, think and buy is controlled by digital gatekeepers who have no background, or even interest in traditional methods of gathering and curating the news.
Every part of the culture has been affected. Two years ago Bloomberg reported that more than half of US online consumers began their search for a product at Amazon.com. Companies like FaceBook and Google exert an even greater level of influence over what we collectively think and know. Hence, in large part, the intensity of American fears at alleged Russian interference in the last election. But however well-founded such concerns may be, an even larger problem is that a few American companies, each with private agendas, essentially control our global digital infrastructure. Edward Snowden’s revelations showed how vulnerable this leaves us to surveillance, but it also induces a dangerous level of groupthink.
Evgeny Morozov has written about the penchant of Silicon Valley executives to indulge in ‘solutionism’: creating tech-based solutions for problems that didn’t previously exist, and reworking social problems into formats that are conducive to digital tracking and analysis. High levels of crime, for instance, can be reconfigured as a problem of not having enough alarms. While more alarms might discourage criminal activity, it also does nothing to address the social issues that traditional policy makers would usually address. This is a persistent theme of the new technology.
Several decades ago, in a book called Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, the media critic Neil Postman presciently noticed how profoundly technology affects our interactions with the world, how easily it lures us into abandoning large problems to technocrats. Postman also sensed the self-centredness that arose from a culture of ‘personal’ devices. Long before the Internet, he worried that a “personal computer” in a classroom would “[break] a four-hundred year-old truce between the gregariousness and openness fostered by orality and the introspection and isolation fostered by the printed word.” The previous approach, he noted, “stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility” the new mode, by contrast, emphasizes “individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy.”
It is hardly surprising then that several of the world’s most valuable companies are those which peddle the dream of mass customization, inflating our sense of individual worth by shutting out anything that conflicts with it. Safely immured by the distractions of our smartphones and social media, we are far less likely to worry about war, starvation, and the erosion of the social contract. That loss would never be measured by economists and stock-markets; it is priceless.