'Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy' by Jonathan Taplin
The authors of the books we review every month tend to be quite special people: Inspiring entrepreneurs, venerable scholars, and engineers who made it. Jonathan Taplin is no different. He is currently serving as the director emeritus at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. So he is part of a group of leaders guiding the digital revolution we have been going through in the last three decades. He is also a visionary, having founded with two friends a streaming-video-on-demand company, Intertainer, in 1996, long before the introduction of broadband internet network. In a sense, he had launched what could have become the "YouTube before YouTube" if it weren't for the lack of infrastructure.
Feeling the pain
It would have been a familiar "what-could-have-been" story if this was all there was to Taplin. However, he isn't your run-of-the-mill tech entrepreneur. He spent years working as the tour manager for the Band. A music and movie producer, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese. He was there when the music and movie industries peaked in the 1960s and 1970s and also witnessed how the advent of the Internet destroyed them.
What dealt these two industries the first blow was platforms like Napster and pirate sites that acted as though copyrights never existed. Later, Youtube emerged, hosting pirated content and claiming ignorance while reaping the benefits in terms of ad revenues. Today, people are spending more money on music, books, and movies than they ever did, but the portion of that money going into the bank accounts of creators is getting smaller. It is the usual suspects that are pocketing the difference. As a result of this sea change, the majority of artists find it impossible to live on the income generated by the royalty fees of their past works.
Move Fast and Break Things is a manifesto against the tech industry that knows no bounds in its quest for ever bigger profit margins. It is written by someone who has seen friends get taken advantage of and live personal tragedies while the rewards of their hard work accrue to others. Selfish Silicon Valley moguls destroyed the lives of Taplin's friends, and he is in no mood to let it pass.
Newer, bigger, stronger gatekeepers
Taplin is talking on behalf of many of us when he criticizes what has become of the Internet. The twentieth century was not an egalitarian utopia as it had its share of gatekeepers in show business—producers, record companies, and studios who decided which songs or movies would meet the masses. The twenty-first century, though, has replaced them with even more ruthless gatekeepers and turned artistic creation into a matter of 1s and 0s, with creators having almost no control over how their works are consumed.
Taplin gives us a glimpse of the market in the tech industry, which goes a long way toward explaining what we are faced with:
- YouTube enjoys a 52 percent market share in the music-streaming business.
- Amazon controls 70 percent of the ebook business and receives 51 cents of every dollar spent on online commerce.
- Google has an 85 percent share among search engines.
Does that sound like an equal-opportunity arena to you?
The object of Taplin's ire is libertarians, disciples of the economist Milton Friedman and the philosopher Ayn Rand, who shun government control or any form of regulation that can reign in the forces of the market. Among them are people like Google executives and the Koch brothers. They penetrate the U.S. government, recruit ex-government officials and send their employees to work for the government, meddle in the legislative process, and make sure that nothing can threaten their grasp on power.
Leveraging their political clout, companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have built a moat around their businesses. Typically, highly profitable businesses make an industry attractive for newcomers, and the latter's entrance brings the profits down. The tech industry seems insulated from any such effect as technical barriers are high, and the incumbents can easily change the rules of the game as they have massive control over the government. Therefore, they continue extracting monopoly rents from services that have become utilities of our age.
No saint at all
One interesting character among the libertarian mob is Peter Thiel. Thiel was one of the good guys in George Gilder's book, Life after Google. He was the standard-bearer who led the assault on the alliance between the PhD-holding Silicon Valley elites and academia. In Gilder's eyes, Thiel was the protector of college dropouts who wanted to overthrow the existing order in the tech industry. He was the brains behind the Thiel Fellowship, which encouraged young people to stop chasing pointless degrees and pursue meaningful change instead. Gilder presented him as a guy who mentored rebels like Vitalik Buterin against the Big Data tyranny.
Jonathan Taplin disagrees with this "Saint Peter of Silicon Valley" image Gilder paints. Peter Thiel, in his own words, "the godfather of the PayPal Mafia," is the main villain in Taplin's account. He is a libertarian with a Darwinian view of life who is out to destroy anything on his way, including regulation, taxes, copyrights, and democracy, to secure money and power for himself. This contrast between the two accounts of the same man reminds us of the complexity of the politics of tech business today. One party's hero turns out to be another party's thief.
Jonathan Taplin fondly remembers the heyday of show business. His book is an emotional account of the demise of the pre-digital age entertainment industry. He is bitter against the perpetrators who enjoy fame and wealth despite building those two on the ruins of the livelihoods of artists. He is realistic in thinking that the golden age of music and cinema will never come back. The emergence of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning will make matters worse as what was successful in the past will determine what will be produced in the future, killing human creativity.
Move Fast and Break Things was written in 2017, at the beginning of the Trump presidency. It is disheartening that the last few years haven't seen much improvement with regard to copyright infringement by the usual suspects. However, the public has become more sensitive to issues like data privacy and the control a few tech companies enjoy over our politics and the democratic process. The best days of music and cinema may be behind, but maybe we can save our democracy.