Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – they tower over civilization like the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and this concerns some people.
The European Union doesn’t like the control that these companies are exerting on the market, but they are fast becoming the infrastructure. How much of the internet is on Amazon Web Servers? 8.5 Million people out of 12 Million on the internet have Facebook – and Facebook has better facial recognition software than the government. Apple has a value that rivals the GDP of a small country. Google and its video site YouTube are the two largest search engines in the world. If you aren’t using at least one of them it would be surprising.
So, in the end, what effect is it going to have if these companies are hit on a national level, when they exist in a transnational space? They have the money to navigate around these issues, and they have the money to outmarket any rivals. Are they likely to be in the category of too big to fail? Are they there already?
Amazon had an issue when someone put a line of code in the wrong place and took a third of their servers off line, and the problems rippled out through many companies, prompting a change in policy at Amazon in regards to back-ups, running of diagnostics, etc. Amazon is predicted to be the largest retailer in the groceries market by 2030 after its purchase of Whole Foods. Bezos, like Musk, has a space rocket company. There are drones. There is total market saturation – and Amazon has even been found to producing a lot of the cheaper items it sells under names not immediately associated with Amazon.
Could Facebook lead to the first President elected out of a Social Media Company? That might be an interesting sequel to Twitter President – though Zuckerberg denies having any designs on the White House. Facebook is taking on listings, market-places, intra-business virtual work spaces, blogging, video-streaming, chat-apps: it basically wants to be everything to everyone.
Out of the 4, Apple specializes more, and in some senses really doesn’t seem to have clear path forward, or at least one that has been made explicit, beyond constant new iterations of existing products. Quality over innovation seems to be where they are at currently.
Google are operating in a lot of fields, and still seem to operate by throwing more than enough at the wall and seeing what sticks, an approach the CEO called environmental programming – where they try to change the way people do things, not necessarily with a long term plan of staying in that specific field.
They have their own problems, and these occasionally leak out from behind the polished surface, and the problems are generally of the nature of corporate culture, or tech industry culture, which can be problematic given some of the areas these companies are trying to expand into, and the number of people invested in them getting it right. Ethics is something you bump up against really hard when people can use the tools you have created to do things other than what you maybe intended in the creation of the product or service.
Do you hand over the operating system of your phone to allow the hacking of a terrorist’s phone? Do you use the social media platform you built to help people to pin down and help bring justice to those who use it to hurt others? How do you insulate yourself against hatred being disseminate by people you have enabled to have a larger reach than they would have normally? Well, if you want to be everything to everyone, you have to start adopting some kind of leadership role – you have to start handling the environment you are helping to create. What’s going to happen otherwise? You are going to collapse under the weight of ethically problematic things that you have enabled.
Working with these companies, because of their reach, their ability to make things happen, their economic clout, and their expertise, might be wiser than hobbling them. It has long been the way that a lot of tech innovation develops in the tidepool of garagelabs and incubators, and then when it makes a break for it, it gets gobbled up by one of the larger predators, and repurposed as an aspect of the behemoth. Innovation is always going to be in flux, as is homogenisation, because they are in a constant dialogue, where they mutually transform each others landscapes with a combination of action and reaction. In a market where a single government might be able to dismantle the internet with a rider on a bill or a white paper that no one reads, having a transnational company that can grow itself elsewhere might not be such a bad thing. I hate the idea of monopolies, but sometimes having a robust company that can be a champion for the little man and has the economic power to withstand pressure from institutions that seek to dismantle free speech or the means by which people transmit that free speech, is a saving grace. GAFA may be the lesser of two evils.