Welcome to episode 229 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
This week, we’re going to chat a bit about an interesting piece recently published in the New York Times about the changing public perceptions of tech giants, our favorites being of course Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, collectively GAFA, is the buzzword acronym of the moment, and their power in and over our lives.
Once seen as maybe techno-saviors, they’re now seen as maybe threats. Recently, of course Facebook has run into all kinds of trouble because their tools had been used to undermine the US democratic process. As a larger part of this discussion, the question of whether the techno utopia we seek is really there or if it’s really just another way for large companies to get their fingers into our collective financial pie.
Let’s start off with sort of a angel-devil analysis of each of our favorite tech giants. Maybe we’ll start with Google. On the angel side, of course, we have this wonderful search capability and their mission to catalog all of the world’s information, pretty stout algorithm for doing so, and all kinds of free tools for collaborating with your creative partners on everything from writing to slides to what have you. Not to mention, their ventures into emerging technologies and genomics. They’ve got this wonderful portfolio, and frankly, there’s all kinds of reasons that I use Google on sort of a regular day to day basis. There’s the angel side of Google. Dirk, you want to do the devil side or should I dig into that too?
Go for it. You frame us up and then we’ll have a conversation.
Yeah. On the devil side of course, you have really some of the same things, which is because they’re providing us access to the world’s information, they’re the gatekeeper. So the things that show up on the first page of Google, that is everybody’s SEO dream. You arrive there, and whether you arrive there via paying Google money to appear in search engine ads, or whatever arcane search engine optimization your site might have, the first page of Google is the gate, and if you’re not on that first page or maybe the first couple of pages, your traffic’s going to drop off precipitously. They have sort of a mysterious alchemy for determining what things appear where, and if you’ve got a business model based on search, you better hope that you stay in their good graces because they can sort of remove you basically from the internet. Not literally, but if no one can find you, are you really there? Probably not.
Additionally, you have all of this information, whether it’s genomic data or sensor data or what have you that’s slowly being collected by Alphabet, you know, sort of Google larger company there, and we are not sure what exactly they’re going to do with it. Ostensibly, it’s for research and other things, but you know, people are people, so you have to imagine that profit motive is also going to be a driving factor, which may turn out to be good things or may not turn out to be so good. There’s my angel-devil analysis of Google.
For Facebook, I would say sort of their biggest sin of late … start with the devil side … is that they’re monetizing just about everybody’s kinds of traffic. If you want to buy ads that are racist or are going to drive some sort of hate speech, go to Facebook and you can do that sort of thing. That’s been well documented in the news, not to mention the fake news problem, which if you’re getting all of your social media from Facebook and your news is being filtered through Facebook, then it’s very likely that you’re going to end up with some news that isn’t really news at all.
On the plus side, I suppose it’s nice to see a photo from someone you knew in high school once that you used to talk to occasionally. I try to avoid Facebook as much as possible. You know, occasionally you’re looking at a photo or something like that, seeing a person’s update, but I try to stay away because it feels like a time suck to be voyeuristically looking into other people’s lives. I know that doesn’t sound like the angel side of it, but that’s actually the side that people go there for, to keep in touch with their social network and I could sort of care less.
I’m not a huge fan of any of these companies, but let me give Facebook a little bit more on the angel side. One of the things that I thought was terrific that Facebook started to do was to create sort of events around things that are happening and give people the opportunity to broadcast that they’re okay, basically. You know like hey, this thing’s going on, and I can say … you know I live in Houston, for example, the hurricane was here, I’m okay, everything’s good. Facebook has done some nice work around those sort of … we’ll call them remote communication status updates. Not status as “Here’s me and a selfie eating a cheeseburger,” status as “I as of now continue to survive,” even you out there far away may be wondering, oh what happened to him or her?
Yeah. There’s certainly examples of Facebook being used to increase free speech, democratic speech. The Arab Spring of course was a moment in the Middle East where there was a lot of discussion about how government’s there purport themselves that largely played out on Facebook and Twitter. Even though we’re seeing sort of the rotten side of Facebook right now, with the recent US election influence, there have been political movements in the past that have benefited or arguably had benefited from that.
Next on our list, our friends at Apple. We could probably keep this one short because on the show, we’ve sort of raked Apple over the coals, and praised Apple, for the past-
Long time ago, Jon, it’s been a long time since we’ve been praising Apple.
But regardless, Apple’s got all of the disruptive tech platform that changed the way we consume information, and these days of course, if you’ve got a thousand bucks, you can get your iPhone X bling. It feels like the Armani of technology. For some reason, I mean I know it’s a premium product … it just seems a little bit out of touch to me, both on the design side and just on the … where they’re pushing with the thousand-dollar phones and the Apple Watch that you can get blinged out with gold. Just seems a little oddball to me, but okay.
Jon, is it called iPhone X or iPhone ten? What’s the right name? Because I don’t know, and so I’m wondering if you know for sure.
Yeah, I don’t know either.
Let’s bungle this together.
It feels like iPhone X because there is no iPhone 9, right?
There’s an iPhone 8, so you’re just skipping 9 and going to X. I think that’s where we are now.
Yeah. The branding people at Apple have done it again. I too, when I heard, oh, this will be the first thousand-dollar smartphone, I was sort of aghast. Then I realize the iPhone 8 is $800, so it strikes me that that’s just more of a round number that is raising our eyebrows, as opposed to really being super expensive premium of the thing. I mean it’s 25% more expensive, right? That’s not that big of a deal.
I think they’re just adding a zero on to the end of the number, so you’ve got the iPhone 8 for … you know … or two zeros, right? 800 and you got the iPhone ten or X for a grand. Regardless, I mean compared to the price of that IBM-compatible personal computer that my parents bought for me in high school, in the mid-80s or late 80s, that was well over a thousand dollars and I’m sure the iPhone X will completely make that look like it’s a stone. In terms of value, the value’s probably there. It still feels like an awful lot of money, and I don’t know, it just rubs me the wrong way.
Next on our, and our last company to take through the angel v devil outline here, Amazon. I’ve sort of struggled with my impressions of Amazon because I understand as an organization, they’re very savage, I think, is one word for it. It strikes me that they’ve gotten an awful lot of rough internal competition to provide for their customers the experience that they do. There was actually a New York Times piece on … sort of exposé on how backstabbing and culturally tough Amazon is, even amongst tech companies. I just know from talking to folks who have worked at Amazon that there is some truth there in that piece.
When you say even among tech companies, I think the fact that it is a tech company is the notable part, because their competitors on this list, Google, Apple, and Facebook, are consistently rated among the best places to work. So it’s really odd that Amazon is consistently rated very poorly in those same surveys and metrics.
Yeah, so if that’s what it takes to get what we’re getting at Amazon, that’s a tough trade-off and like I said, I do struggle with that when I think about Amazon. The flip side of that is I really do love their service, more so than any service, because I love books so much and it’s just …
Oh they did once. They still sell them to me.
Yeah, the book is that ancient thing that looks like a tablet that has many beautiful pages, nice topography. I still buy them, and I buy them from Amazon because Amazon just sort of …
Yeah. I buy videos from Amazon, I grab audio books from Audible which is an Amazon subsidiary.
Down in the rabbit hole, yo.
Yes. There’s so much … I mean Amazon is probably one the services I’m most tied to. There are a couple of boxes from Amazon in the recycling bin every week. They definitely got their hooks in me, and I do love the service. Their internal culture, that chafes me a little, and also I worry that … you know, when I’m looking at the pricing now, I really have to be careful because there is sort of variable pricing that they roll out. You’re not necessarily get a good price just because you’re buying it on Amazon. It will be convenient, but watch out.
So those are two things, internal machinations and the variable pricing that you just have to keep a sharp eye on lest you spend way more than you intended on products. The reason that we’ve gone through this dissection of angels and devils in our favorite tech companies is …
Your favorite tech companies.
Yes, the market’s favorite tech companies, maybe … is that there’s a … the shine is coming off of a lot of these big companies that have been economically advantaged in a lot of ways, are international in breadth, have billions of users, and largely this has been enabled by a combination of favorable tax treatment, at the same time providing jobs but so few in comparison to the companies of the past that would have achieved this high watermark of market capitalization.
There’s this confluence of things and then combining it with this interesting moral discussion around technology and whether this is all good for us or not. I think we’re starting to ask more and more of those questions in light of the presidential election, but also in light of things where we realize that there are algorithms making decisions for us now, and that’s been an important point on our show. Whether it’s algorithms, software, even our hardware, all made by people. People are universally flawed, so we have this technology and we’re beginning to see some of the flaws in it and the flaws in the companies that make that. Dirk, you have a skeptical inquiry around a lot of these things. What’s your take on this change of mood around our biggest tech companies here?
There’s a lot of ways that we can look at it. One is sort of perceptual human nature. I’ll keep it to our culture because there’s certainly cultural coding here. In the United States, we like underdogs and we like people who kind of come by the bootstraps and pick themselves up and do cool things. These young tech companies all fit that profile really nicely as they came in and disrupted big old slow companies that we didn’t see much value in.
There’s been a natural arc where as these companies were rising, people are generally feeling really good them. They’re making our lives better, we’re happy because they’re new, we identify with them, they become part of our identity in a certain way. Then as they grow and become really powerful, that shifts, because now there’s mix of fear and envy and just discomfort. To use an analogy that’s maybe a little more everyday. I mean think about here in the Boston area, the New England Patriots. When the New England Patriots first surprisingly won the Superbowl, everybody in America loved them. As they were successful over a number of years, people still liked them. They were sort of forcing themselves to become part of the narrative of football history in a neat way. So yeah, three Superbowls in four years, fantastic, people love them.
But as they keep winning and keep winning and keep winning, it turns. You have the couple of scandals, it turns more. Now, the joke is nobody outside of Boston likes … not only likes the Patriots, they all want the Patriots, they all want the Patriots to lose more than any other team. It’s a product of how we psychologically interact with and juxtapose ourselves with other things. These tech companies, the GAFA companies, they’re at their New England Patriots moment of … they have so much success, they’re so big, they’re doing a lot of stupid things now, things that make us question where they’re going in the future that we’re turning on them pretty quickly, pretty quickly. Even just five years ago, I think the mood and the tone was very, very different.
That sort of perception, like psychology, that’s part of it. Another part of it look, I mean these are corporations. They exist to make profits. The tools that they are creating, the services that they offer, the products, these are things that in some utopia that we’re not going to reach anytime soon here, could be leveraged for incredible good for the human condition. It could really uplevel the quality of our lives in various and sundry ways. Both us in the culture who can presently afford the stuff, but also the people who currently can’t. I mean it could be rising tides globally in amazing ways.
However, these corporations exist to make money. Their goal is to make money, and now that they have beaten their competitors out of markets, their behavior is going to become more and more dysfunctional because it can be, because they don’t need to compete and compete in better, cleaner, more desirable ways to succeed. Now they’re going to optimize, they’re going to squeeze what they can out, and the people who are going to suffer ostensibly are their lower level employees and consumers, and the societies and countries that house them.
Those are just two quick ones off the top of my head, but yeah, I’m very skeptical, both from a perception standpoint and my own sort of human weaknesses and frailties, but also from an intellectual perspective of … these companies don’t have very good places to go. We don’t have, as humans, a shared sense of the way the world should be. We all have different conceptions what is morality, what is right, what is wrong, what is truth. Even within a small subcommunity here in the United States, let alone the whole United States, let alone the whole world, we have totally fractured ideas of what is the way that things should be. It becomes impossible to drive towards some better reality because we don’t have the same sense of what that better reality is.
There’s an anthropologist in the 20th century named Clare Graves who did research around the whole world, longitudinal research, and what he discovered was that there is a predictable evolutionary progress and path that happens at social, societal civilization level even, let’s say, as well as just from the macro all the way down to the micro, of the journey of a single individual human. In these different levels, not everyone continues moving up the levels to get to the higher, more evolved, more healthful levels. But, if we are evolving and progressing, it is in these very predictable ways. Regardless of where we’re from, regardless of if it’s 20th century or 1st century, regardless of ethnics … anything, anything. He found these patterns that were consistent across all of human history, within his ability to study it, at least.
The problem is, we’re all in totally different places. To use some of the language that’s built on top of Graves’ theories, the people who are the real staunch conservatives who are against things like gay marriage, who are going to keep their guns because the goddamned Constitution says they can have their guns. Those people, in Graves’ conception are in a lower evolutionary point than people who are more socially progressive. Even the people now who are super social progressives are not operating in an optimal way. There operating in ways … there’s a writer Ken Wilbur who calls it the green ceiling, that liberals keep hitting their head on the green ceiling. They’re not able to get up to the real levels of enlightenment and evolution.
The point I’m making here in ways that might be a little bit abstract for the purpose of this radio show is that we are so disjointed as people across our countries, across our cultures, and just across where we are on the evolutionary spectrum of how we function as beings, that getting beyond the hard scrabble … these companies are going to make a profit, they’re going to optimize, they’re going to squeeze, they’re going to fuck is in the end … there’s just no path to get beyond that right now. The stories there, I can tell the story, I could write the path, but going from theory to reality and implementation, we’re nowhere on that journey. These giant tech companies have become these enormous weapons out there that are going to do damage hither and yon, and they’re going to be protected by countries that want to profit from them, they’re going to be protected by their board of directors and their shareholders who want to continue to maximize those profits into the future, and around we go.
Everything around these companies feels accelerated. If we’re looking at another gilded age, it feels like we’re pushing through this stuff quite quickly. I imagine that we’ll find out sooner or later where they’re going. These companies are relatively young in terms of being what, being 10, 12, 15 years old.
… but the other three are certainly very young.
The speed at which this is happening as well I think is notable. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you want to follow us outside the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s j-o-n-f-o-l-l-e-t-t, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r, and thanks so much for listening.