Even as many Americans look with horror on the authoritarian blusterer in the White House, we are slowly succumbing to a more pernicious, less obvious and far more lasting tech oligarchy gaining ever more control over our economy, culture and politics.
“We are certainly looking at bringing antitrust cases against Amazon, Facebook and Google,” Trump said in an interview just before the election, adding that he’s had “so many people” warning him about their overwhelming power.
Unreliable narrator though the President may be, people are indeed waking up to the tech giants’ massive and largely unchecked power, and the consequences of turning over our channels of communication to them. That includes World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who said earlier this year that he “was devastated” by how the internet has been used in recent elections, including our presidential race, and that he’s working to create a new system now that “the web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places.”
We once saw the tech industry as a refreshing alternative to the staid old corporate establishment, a entrepreneurial environment where all kinds of thoughts and images would have free rein. Yet as the industry has evolved, it has become one of the most concentrated and monopolistic America has ever seen, determined to stamp out prospective rivals and expand control of both media and politics.
Amazon’s recent decision to put its two new “headquarters” operations in New York and Washington illustrates the growing collusion of tech, culture and media. From an economic or geographic point of view, other cities like Columbus, Dallas, or Indianapolis, where tech growth is greater and where lower housing and living prices are drawing more millennials, might have made more sense. But by locating in the most expensive and connected northeastern cities, Amazon and Jeff Bezos are placing themselves in the heart of the nation’s dominant media and political culture. With almost limitless cash, considerations like office or housing costs, or even taxes, that impact most normal businesses apparently mean very little.
The early phases of the digital revolution, which I witnessed in California in the 1970s and 1980s, were shaped by relentless competition between upstarts and firms that, just a few years earlier had been upstarts. Scores of companies launched their own personal computer lines, software and peripherals.
Today, a handful of companies that have colluded to keep wages down dominate the digital economy, in part by buying up any emerging competitors. Once we had bold notions of the internet helping to create an ever-expanding realm of options in the arts and journalism. In 1980, the late Alvin Toffler suggested in The Third Wave a “de-massified media.” Instead, we have Google controlling nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of American e-book sales, over forty percent of all online sales and, perhaps most important, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, Google and Apple control over 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices. Microsoft still accounts for over 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.
This piece originally appeared at The Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.