Is Silicon Valley Killing Democracy?

Micheal Krauss
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Jonathan Taplin argues that Google, Amazon and Facebook have “hijacked the original decentralized vision of the internet” and created monopolies."

So what? These firms are the drivers of innovation and growth in the global economy, and they provide lower cost, greater efficiency and enormous consumer benefits.

Now what? Taplin asks readers to reflect on the technology revolution and explore whether our perception of innovation and disruption may be damaging our fundamental institutions.

​Nov. 1, 2017

One author argues the unchecked pursuit of innovation is not as beneficial for the economy as we think

There’s talk about whether five major technology innovators—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple—have achieved such market dominance that they should be regulated. As with Standard Oil at the turn of the last century or AT&T in 1984, have these five technology leaders achieved too much power and market influence over our society?

These firms are the drivers of innovation and growth in the global economy. They provide lower cost, greater efficiency and enormous consumer benefits, but Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, argues that Google, Amazon and Facebook have “hijacked the original decentralized vision of the internet” and created monopolies that “now determine the future of the music, film, publishing and news industries.”

Taplin’s book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, offers an important perspective on the technology revolution to which marketers should be alert: Revolutions, whether the French Revolution of the 18th century or the Russian Revolution of the 20th century, often overreach and fail to achieve their original vision.

The internet revolution, Taplin argues, was supposed to bring us more democracy; instead it has concentrated power and wealth in fewer hands and created oligarchy.

Move Fast and Break Things will challenge your views about free-market economics, digital disruption, antitrust regulation, industry consolidation and whether the internet is as positive for society as was hoped. What intrigues me about Taplin and his book is the combination of thoughtful argument, individual passion for the subject and marvelous storytelling by an observer who has lived through the digital disruption of his industry. Taplin isn’t bitter; he’s prospered and succeeded. Yet he clearly fears something important is being sacrificed in the digital revolution.

Taplin believes that artists and content creators have suffered at the hands of the digital platform providers, making society the loser. He argues that government funding created the internet revolution, yet the returns of those investments are being earned by a few individuals.

Taplin began his career after graduating from Princeton University in 1969. He got a job working for Albert Grossman, one of the most influential managers in the music business at the time. He cut his teeth in the music and entertainment business as the tour manager for The Band. Taplin laments that power has unfairly shifted from the artists and producers of content to a small number of hyper-rich entrepreneurs. Where a musician might have made a reasonable living as a performer in years past, today’s technology, along with misguided public policy, has diminished and stripped power from the creators. Taplin believes society will suffer from this loss.

Taplin explains how our approach to copyright laws failed to support performers like the late Levon Helm of The Band. Unlike his bandmate Robbie Robertson, Helm received no credits for writing songs. Helm was purely a performer who earned royalties from the recordings of his performances until the internet arrived and file-sharing technology destroyed his income stream. While entrepreneurs argued that “content wants to be free,” Helm, suffering from throat cancer at age 70, had to return to the road and give performances to keep a roof over his head.

“The tech elite’s jealous guarding of its own monopoly is built upon the blatant disregard for the artist’s intellectual property,” says Taplin.

Taplin explains that we’ve allowed enormous industry consolidation because federal regulators cared more about the consumer market price results than potential dominance and predation. He also has plenty to say about the failures of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Taplin’s take on Google is equally compelling. He views Google as failing to live up to its motto of “Don’t be evil.” He says Google is hypocritical for aggressively protecting its own intellectual property while not respecting the intellectual property of content creators.

Taplin criticizes Amazon and Jeff Bezos, describing at length how Amazon can selectively punish the publishing houses that fail to yield to its marketplace power.

He challenges Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his aproach: “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough.”

When I was growing up in the 1950s, I remember watching a television report about the impact of computer technology and factory automation. In the technology world, we’ve always assumed that innovation and disruption would create more benefits than costs. Jobs would be lost to technology, but workers would adapt, retrain and ultimately everyone would be better off, including the workforce that was disrupted.

In Move Fast and Break Things, Taplin asks us to reflect on the technology revolution and explore whether our perception of innovation and disruption may be damaging our fundamental institutions. Are we properly applying laws and traditions to the technology industry?

Personally, I’m all for technology innovation and growth. I suspect Taplin is, too. His book simply reminds us we might want to move just a little slower and not break things quite so much. Otherwise, we might not like the results.


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Author Bio:

 
Micheal Krauss
Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group based in Chicago.
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