Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (Penguin, 2017) calls for antitrust action against near-monopolies like Google and Facebook. He notes that AT&T founder Theodore Vail argued that the costs of stringing a massive network made it sensible to allow a monopoly situation, and the government agreed for most of the 20th century. Government finally moved to break up Ma Bell, and the result was a dramatic lowering of long-distance rates.
Now, the advent of cell phones has eliminated the wiring problem for telephones, and competition there is robust—but Google, Facebook, and Amazon have dangerous near-monopolies in their areas. The Supreme Court historically has seen not only government but media monopolies as endangering freedom of the press, and Foer points out how subtly manipulative some of our new communications controllers can be: “With even the gentlest caress of the metaphorical dial, Facebook changes what its users see and read. … Facebook is constantly tinkering with how its users view the world.”
Foer also shows how Amazon throws its weight around: “When sparring over terms with the publishing conglomerate Macmillan, it stripped the company’s books of the buttons that allow customers to purchase them. In its dealings with Hachette, it delayed shipment of books. … The company leaves no doubt that it will suppress a publisher’s performance in its algorithms and eliminate its books from its emails if the company rejects its terms.” Amazon now controls two-thirds of online book sales.
The greatest danger is not the elevation of profits but the suppression of ideas. Former New Republic editor Foer shows that “we rely on a small handful of companies to provide us with a sense of hierarchy, to identify what we should read and what we should ignore, to pick informational winners and losers.” This year it’s gone beyond hierarchy: We’re seeing tech giants accepting the Southern Poverty Law Center’s biased reporting and excommunicating anyone Social Justice Warriors see as heretical.
Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (Little, Brown, 2017) supplements Foer’s frown. Taplin shows how the internet economy has hurt musicians and writers, and he’d also like governmental action. Conservatives who distrust both Washington and Silicon Valley will have to figure out ways they can check each other, at a time when PayPal and Facebook pioneer Peter Thiel says “competition … distorts our thinking.” His short treatise is aptly titled Zero to One (Crown, 2014).
Vox Populi, edited by Roger Kimball (Encounter, 2017), includes strong essays that fulfill the promise of the subhead: analysis of The Perils & Promises of Populism. For example, Fred Siegel’s essay eviscerates the influential writing of historian Richard Hofstadter. Robert Petterson’s The Book of Amazing Stories (Tyndale, 2017) has some good tales of God’s working in history. The Daniel Dilemma by Chris Hodges (Nelson, 2017) helps us do what the subtitle advises: Stand Firm & Love Well in a Culture of Compromise.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of “Privilege” (St. Martin’s, 2017) shows, as the subtitle states, Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. Craig Shirley’s Citizen Newt (Thomas Nelson, 2017) describes the rise of Newt Gingrich but ends in 1994, which is where his greater tragedy begins. —M.O.