All My Children

Though more different than alike, they do have a lot in common. All are, in some way, progeny of the microprocessor. Some were born in around Silicon Valley, others quite distant. The first generation was born in the US early in the last third of the 20th Century. The second was born near the end of the late 20th — early in the 21st Century. None of them could have been born in an earlier era. Microsoft* 1972, Apple*1976, and Oracle*1977, were instrumental in developing the power of microprocessors either through developments in software, hardware, or both. Amazon*1994, Google*1998, Facebook*2004, and Twitter*2006 were all about utilizing the vast computing power of microprocessor based computers. They grew like weeds. The nation had not seen the likes since Carnegie and Rockefeller of the 19th Century. Now, as then, it didn’t quite know what to do with them. Now, as then, the Nation found itself being jerked about economically, socially, and politically by these new giants. What are to be the standards when all is so new?

Called Technology Companies because they were the children of this Age of Technology; some sold software, some hardware, some both; some provided a service in exchange for the users eyeballs, and personal info, which they then sold to others. Some sold stuff for others until they became so rich they took these others’ business from them, bought others, and did some of everything. One thing they held in common was that they all, excepting Theranos and Twitter, had quickly grown to be very prosperous, and to be very big and powerful. Amazon has enough cash on hand to buy General Motors outright; so does Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. Another thing held in common; they all started up in an unregulated environment. And another; these Technology Companies were all, with the exception of Theranos, started up by young men, some of whom were very young.

For nigh on fifty years now the US Government hasn’t seemed to know enough about what was going on with this new technology to step up and impose needed regulations. In some cases, those running these companies couldn’t have told you what was going on. It has all been a wild ride. Now, in the early 21stCentury, as in the early 20th, it is clear to most that something must be done. As in 1904, the first step is to break them up. They are so big that no one else can compete. Sound familiar? As with the titans of the Gilded Age, these guys have tremendous influence on national economics, society, and politics and policy. These guys have world-wide influence.

As in the gilded Age: Too big is when a company has its own Representatives and Senators, and writes legislation meant to benefit itself. Too big when, as a result of that legislation, immigrant labor is used to suppress workers wages. In the Gilded Age, Capitalism was next to god; strikers were shot. In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalist beat, raped, and killed Rohingya Muslims because of anti-Muslim hate-speech postings on Facebook. When confronted with this fact, Facebook expressed concern.

As in the Gilded Age, these new Titans of what was now the Technology Age have been hailed as geniuses. Fair to say, some of them are of well above average intelligence. Also fair to say that some of them are not. That some aren’t all that well rounded, or educated. That some are amoral. Wise? We have seen little or no evidence of that.

Microsoft*1972, Apple*1976, and Oracle*1977, were, as noted, instrumental in developing the power of microprocessors either through developments in software, hardware, or both. They each brought some good, some really good, products to market. Even so, we would have been far better off with more competition for such as they should have named it Patches Windows; with two or more each of made in the US Apples and Oracles.

Amazon*1994, first of the second generation, was founded by Jeff Bezos. Bezos understood computers, foresaw the potential of the Web, the significance of data, and the use and power of algorithms. He also understood margins; has exhibited a excellent grasp of economics. While the first generation had envisioned new products and new markets, he saw a fortune in retail margins. He would bring retail to the Web, or vice versa. He could do the same thing the retailers did without the brick and mortar and make a lot of money doing it. Fast forward to 2019: Poor UPS and FedEx never knew what hit them. Should have been one of them instead. Couldn’t see the brass ring? Reached but missed it? UPS had shown a spark with the parts department for hire. Too late, probably couldn’t borrow enough to begin to compete now. Not one to dawdle, Bezos, foreseeing the end of the warehouse, is going to go for The United States Postal Service, USPS, next. The government waited way too long to tackle the Amazon problem. Now, there is no escaping it. Unless something is done, Bezos will soon be the most powerful man in the world. He has already the surpassed John D. Rockefeller. Without doubt, Amazon has been a godsend during the pandemic; poised and ready, led the way. Looking down the road a bit, Amazon will become our worst nightmare.

Google*1998, put computers and the web together and got information; put information and advertising together and got money. Google changed the world forever. Where before, libraries and human brains were the repositories of information, now anyone with access to the web could just google it. In order to pay for this service, Google would sell ads; everyone wants information. Google would charge the advertiser by the clicks of visitors who clicked on the ad. The significance of providing information via the web is truly momentous. Hence Google, knowledge was no longer a personal asset. Going forth, instead of packing heads with knowledge, schools were obliged to focus on teaching students how to think. As for knowledge? Now, anyone can just google up information. In short order, google became a verb, a verb known to all.

Theranos*2003 — See the HBO documentary: ‘The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley’.

Facebook*2004, is a social media or social networking service that provides users a platform where they can share things about themselves with others and look at what others have posted about themselves. Facebook saw, not a market for products, service, or information, but rather a vanity/networking market. In exchange for this service, Facebook would sell advertising on the site directed at the users. Later on, Facebook would begin collecting data in the form of personal information from its users and sell that information to commercial and political interests. At some point Facebook began using algorithms to separate users into groups according to their psychological profiles and then target those groups with information algorithmically determined to be effective in swaying their opinions on matters commercial, social, and maybe? political. By 2016, sixty-two per cent of Americas got their news via social media such as Facebook; thirty-nine per cent from Facebook alone. Facebook has no reporters, no news room, no editors. Facebook was not really in the news business. Until 2015, any news it provided to its users was provided by other users who likely weren’t reporters, may not have been particularly well informed, and even might have been foreign interests trying to damage the United States. Since 2015, Facebook also posts real news from major news portals along with whatever else gets posted by the users. For years Facebook has maintained that they have no responsibility for the news posted on their platform. If Facebook wants to be in the news business, let them form a separate news division with reporters and editors that abide by the rules of journalism. If they want to sell user information to anyone, let them obtain permission from and pay the user for that information and abide by the law as to whom to sell the info to. In 2016 Facebook user data was used by Russian Intelligence to profile these users and then send them false information they were likely to be susceptible to via Facebook; false information that was meant to help Donald Trump win. From 2016 up to the present, in Myanmar, Buddhist nationalist have beaten, raped, or murdered tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims because of anti-Muslim hate-speech postings on Facebook. Facebook was used by Philippine President Duterte to organize supporters, smear opponents, and spread hoaxes. Facebook says that it didn’t know about the Cambridge-Analytic Russian operation until it all blew up and says that it has since taken steps to preclude a recurrence. It was warned about the Myanmar Genocide, could have shut it down, but did nothing for at least two years.

Twitter*2006, liked Facebook’s social networking service, added microblogging. Plagiary? Perhaps, although there is some evidence that Jack Dorsey saw it first. That’s how it works. All over the world, minds are thinking about the same, hitting the same walls. ‘Twas a time, a time it was, when all over the world people were thinking their hardest of ways to become the next Jobs, or Gates; when Silicon Valley was chockablock with software start-ups. So far, twitter has, in the main, exhibited responsibility; has not succumbed to egregious privacy violations.

Starting up a business is both very exciting and difficult. Perhaps even more so when the business is something entirely new. Being relentless, even ruthless, is understandable, maybe even requisite. Believing in the product or service is essential. Fanaticism might well be in order. There are limits. If you want to work yourself to death, that’s acceptable. To work someone else to death in the pursuit of your cause is not. To cause the deaths of others in pursuit of your objective is not. Most of these innovators were very young with little real life experience, knowledge of the world. Weren’t sophisticated enough to foresee the possible bad consequences of their actions. Their own characters were not fully developed. There is evidence that some received excellent mentoring, that some didn’t.

If one starts up a traditional business there are written and unwritten rules of the road; accepted norms in the form of peer pressure, competition, regulations, etc. To be fair, other than acting in their own good faith and high standards, these norms were nonexistent for innovators such as these. The only regulation that applied to Facebook’s news-from-users was Section 230 of the 1996 Communications and Decency Act. Somehow related to keeping porn off the internet; Section 230 generally provides immunity for website publishers from third-party content. Facebook drove their truck right on through.

The establishment of these rules of the road falls perforce to government; something far better done sooner than later. This was known. The need to prevent a business from getting too big was known. Leaving these things up to the forces of the market, and profit and growth motives was known to be insane, immoral. Due to the lack of effective government regulation: the lives of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, of citizens in the Philippines, were imperiled; what had been weak democracies were weakened even more. Being relentless doesn’t give a business the right to be a party to atrocities, to allow itself to be used to seize power by would be autocrats. Decisions of the gravest consequences were being made by those obviously not up to the task; for all the wrong reasons. Imperialism without bananas. Domestically, too, Facebook contributed to our own political polarization. Maybe, it is better to get a coffee together rather than connect on Facebook.

Rules of the road can be written so as to enhance innovation. Encouraging competition is one such way. We would have had wound up with something better than Windows if Microsoft had not been allowed to stifle competition. Amazon well understood monopoly and monopsony; actively sought to be unimpeded by competition, to impose monopsony. Many a small business would have been better off if Amazon had been forced to compete. We would have been better off with two, three, or maybe four Amazons.

We the world have been recipient a progression of innovative products and services that were never before existent. Wow! Facebook was prelude to, has given the world a glimpse into, the future. A future of the likes of Uber and Lyft, and belatedly, Theranos? As with any new art form, and Hollywood, it is all coming to be variations on a theme. The now third generation is looking more like scam artists than innovators. From Bezos’ working the margins to scabbing in fifteen years; from Zuckerberg selling face time in five.

We have gone from shoe leather market surveys to psychological profiling based on user data (whether or not the user knew of and/or agreed to this usage) and proprietary algorithms; a long way in a short period of time. The idea of using algorithms and psychological profiling in combo is almost too much to think about; but think we must. It is extremely important that nations and their citizenry engage in this discourse. Artificial Intelligence, AI, is another consequence of this era of innovation that demands our immediate attention.

Kudos with much appreciation to documentaries like PBS’s Frontline series:

The Facebook Dilemma, Parts I and II ;

and their:

Amazon Empire, The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos ;

to Netflix’s documentary – The Social Dilemma;

and to HBO’s documentary about Theranos – The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley.

These important works have each made significant contributions to this much needed discourse; much appreciated all.