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  • Dan Connors

Is big technology evil?

Don't Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles -- and All of Us

**** Four of five stars

Google, now one of the biggest of the big technology companies had its humble beginnings in 1998 as a tech startup with Larry Page and Sergei Brin. Their original motto was "Don't be evil," an idealistic slogan that encompassed the mindset of the first Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that wanted to help the world through technology. The company, now known as Alphabet, is worth over a trillion dollars and has embraced capitalism and profits with a hubris that makes the old railroad barons look like pikers.

Rana Foroohar, whose previous book, Makers and Takers took on the financial industry, here turns her gaze at the powerful tech industry. Her son got hooked on FIFA soccer as a phone app and racked up hundreds of dollars in bills, leading her into the world of addiction, money, influence and data that is big tech.

I can't say that this book was a revelation, as I suspected that companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon had ulterior motives and not my best interests in mind. Still, the author paints a fascinating and detailed picture of where we are at the moment. Many of the chapters are depressingly true, but she tries to paint some hopeful signs at the end that show things may be changing. Her last chapter, How Not To Be Evil, is full of wonderful ideas and prescriptions, none of which has a chance in hell of being adopted given the current political climate. But that may change.

I can remember when things like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Ebay and Netflix first arrived on the scene. They all seemed like such great ideas. Facebook gave us the ability to meet up with relatives and friends who were out of town, sharing stories and photos. If it had stayed like that we'd be okay, but Mark Zuckerberg discovered the power of the advertising dollar and targeted markets, which attracted all sorts of dubious, deceptive, and addictive content into Facebook.

Google has been a marvel in the information age. I can remember when finding information meant digging through encyclopedias, magazines and newspapers for hours at a time. Now all one needs is a question and a search bar. Their unique algorithm finds the best answers by looking quickly and thorougly for the most popular answers. While the service is free, they make their money from advertising, which means that every search you perform on Google should have a huge disclaimer, "these guys at the top paid to be here!"

Amazon is another behemoth that has gradually come to control my life. It's just so darned convenient and easy- I shop there all the time and feel bad about not supporting local retailers. Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, is the richest man on the planet, and his company has reaped many of the benefits of big tech while not paying back in the form of taxes, decent wages, or community service.

Foroohar goes into great detail about these and other companies and the weapons that they use to get bigger and bigger. As near as I can detect from these chapters, they wield four mighty weapons that threaten both our economy and our democracy.

1- Big tech gets big because of the network effect. This is the simple idea that users attract more users who attract more users. When something becomes popular, people flock to it. Once it becomes an institution, all the other institutions- government, business, and banks all join in and legitimize the business model. Facebook's main draw is its 2 Billion humans all over the world to network with. Google has the biggest database in the world and the most clout in the advertising world. Apple has legions of devoted fans who stand in line for whatever the latest product will be.

2- They get even bigger by making their products irresistible. Big technology depends heavily on getting and keeping our attention. The author goes into detail about how smart phone apps and games can become addictive to the point where they are a recognized mental disorder. We check our phones on average every 12 minutes, some 80 times a day, hoping to get a dopamine fix from whatever reward system the software designers can come up with. Like other addictive things like gambling, drugs, and sex, once they have our attention they can keep us coming back with predictable psychological tricks.

3- In the age where information is king, big tech has the most information. According to Foroohar, the value of the data that we have handed over eagerly to big tech is more valuable than we can imagine, and this causes an asymmetry between tech companies and those who use it. That means that we as consumers are in the dark about what's going on, as are regulators who are supposed to be looking out for our best interests. Big tech has the upper hand because they know us better than we know ourselves in some cases.

4- Tech companies have lots and lots of money and aren't afraid to spread it around where it helps them the most. The author spends a lot of time going over the questionable financial practices of the tech industry, from parking billions of dollars in overseas bond portfolios to avoid taxes, to lavishing money on corporate lobbying and educational think tanks so that policies favorable to Silicon Valley keep getting enacted and no uncomfortable laws or regulations get passed. The big tech companies are so big now they constitute a monopoly, and their enormous power and money make them impossible to regulate. As monopolies, they can use their power to buy out or intimidate smaller competitors, and their voracious appetites are making them spread into new areas, like Facebook and banking, Amazon and Netflix into content production, and Apple and automobiles.

As a consumer of Google, Apple, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon products, this book is hard for me to reconcile with the convenience that each company provides. (If you click on the link at the bottom of the page and buy this book from them, they and I both get some $$) But for every success story there can be a grisly underbelly that needs to be looked into. Big tech is a disruptive force that threatens us more than we might suspect.

Big tech firms don't employ nearly as many people as traditional businesses. Most of what they make is intangible, which doesn't require nearly as many workers as a factory. The richest firms are getting richer, and new business growth is slowing down. Those factors, plus the rise of the gig economy championed by tech companies like Uber, has dealt a big blow middle-class incomes and accelerated income and wealth inequality. The author believes that the next big financial crisis will originate with Big Tech and its unique money dealings.

The author also devotes a chapter to the threat to democracy posed by tech firms, pointing directly at Facebook's effect on the 2016 US election. Facebook not only doesn't take responsibility for lies posted on its forums, but their algorithms favor viral, disruptive messages over neutral ones. Political campaigns now work directly with Facebook, often letting their employees work directly with campaign staff. Elections are no longer about facts because agents from all over the world can muddy the waters with bogus claims that are free from scrutiny.

Is big tech evil? Webster defines evil as morally reprehensible and arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct. In that context I don't think they are evil exactly.

They just think they know better than the rest of us. And, like all good capitalists, they are chasing the money. A better question would be is capitalism at all costs evil? At what point does the pursuit of profits for shareholders collide with the best interests of community and society? Big tech provides products that make our lives easier. I would not be writing this nor would you be reading this without the help of big tech.

But at some point the costs of all this "free" and "cheap" technology will outweigh the benefits. At some point regulators will have to break up the monopolies and rein in their biggest excesses so that things fall back into balance. The last chapter of this book lays out some good ideas for what needs to happen, and I hope that policy makers will be looking at those issues soon into the future, or we may end up with a world where a small handful of tech giants control all the data and all the money, if we're not there already.

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