About two months ago, in a piece about Jared Kushner and his unfortunate habit of taking meetings with dodgy Russians and then forgetting about them, Charlie Pierce mentioned a new book:
Required reading: Jonathan Taplin has led a very interesting life. For years, he managed The Band during that quintets most gloriously productive years. He then went into movie production and as a kind of all-purpose entertainment entrepreneur and troubleshooter. Since 2004, he’s taught at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. He has now produced a fascinating book entitled Move Fast and Break Things, which not only has some terrific inside stories about the end of The Band, but is a nuanced look at the downside of what is glibly tossed around as “disruption” by various cyber-messianic blowhards. Taplin is hunting big game; it is his contention that the giants of the cyberworld—from Google to Amazon—are threats to the fundamental foundations of democracy and that they also cement inequality into our systems in new and dangerous ways.
Hunting big game indeed. Taplin uses the rise of such digital behemoths as Google, Amazon, and Facebook to highlight what he calls “a massive reallocation of revenue from creators of content to owners of platforms.” But beyond the damage that shift is doing to artists and our broader culture, Taplin also raises the alarm about what it’s doing to our democracy.
Starting with a reminder of how the earliest digital networks were linked to the 60’s counterculture, Taplin goes on to suggest that “the original mission of the Internet was hijacked by a small group of right-wing radicals to whom the ideas of democracy and decentralization were anathema.” He focuses on Ayn Rand disciple and Silicon Valley heavyweight Peter Theil, the founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, and a gang of tech disruptors driven by an extreme libertarian philosophy best summed up by Thiel’s assertion that “competition is for losers.” (And, presumably, monopoly is for the Masters of the Universe.)
In decrying Thiels Randian ethical framework, Taplin raises an essential point:
Disruption of critical cultural infrastructure is only worthy if the replacement is more beneficial to society at large than the original institution was. For instance, has the wholesale destruction of the newspaper industry been followed by the establishment of a more reliable source of local and global news? Or has it just resulted in noise and confusion?
Taplin takes a deep dive into the role Google and Facebook played in crippling newspapers, first by creating a dramatic shift in where advertising dollars go (to their platforms) and then with Facebook’s efforts to dominate news content by being the main host for news articles rather than simply linking to news company sites. Similarly, he takes a hard look at Amazon’s near monopoly position in the distribution of ebooks and their continued dominance in ecommerce and how that crushes competition.
He’s a lot more generous with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg than I am, holding out hope that the tech genius behind this ubiquitous social media platform is going to have to deal some of the consequences of the monster he has created—the privacy issues posed by the site’s data collection and the threat to the news media his brainchild poses.
I walked away from Facebook after the 2016 election, having grown tired of the actual “fake news” that was being peddled there—phony stories, gussied up to look like they came from a local TV or newspaper site, and shared by countless bot accounts to fire up the “Bernie bros” against Hilary Clinton or provide support for Donald Trump’s latest outrageous position. Zuckerberg’s initial refusal to take responsibility for the garbage being distributed through his platform annoyed me and I see no reason to waste time there dealing with people content to treat news trash as treasure worthy of the world’s attention.
In any case, Taplin’s book is an extremely valuable read that offers a compelling case that we’ve let pirates take over the Internet at a real cost to our country. He offers some thoughts on how to take it back and fight what he calls “a digital renaissance”, highlighting the City of Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, a savvy public entity that decided to build a smart grid capable of providing affordable, lightning fast broadband and TV service. As a result, a city that “got screwed by globalization” has become a vibrant tech and start-up community.
The key to rebooting the promise of the Internet is decentralization and a break up of monopolies in the digital space. Whether that will actually happen is an open question in this post-Citizens United era, but it’s sure nice to see someone posing it.