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Apple, Amazon, and Google’s Dehumanizing Technologies [Dead Story File 12/2011]

For a long time, technology has played an obvious role in our lives. As the state of the art has advanced, technological progress has had a pronounced effect on the world: pollution, overpopulation, extreme class disparity. There’s a more insidious effect, prefigured by Wordsworth two hundred years ago: “Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

The big picture problems are more than bothersome, of course, but technology’s “sordid boon” seems like it could be even worse, because of its subtlety. There has been recently a myriad of stories that make me think that technology, defined contingently as the consumer-facing fruit of certain leading companies, has inserted itself into our lives in such a way as to be more important, and by extension more desirable for abuse, than ever before. This combination of inconspicuousness and importance makes even salutary advances, if they remain unremarked upon, an area open to exploitation. Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google perform fabulous feats and offer incredible products. Their ubiquity in the market means that they shape people’s existence as much as the government, family, and the larger cultural atmosphere. Maybe more than all those, and that’s fine. A lot of institutions have more power to shape people’s existence than the government. But very few do so under the guise of an ineradicable push to progress, with a real Law (cf, Moore) held up as describing its inexorable growth. And few institutions shape the course of humanity with humanity itself’s unquenchable approbation. This is a serious problem.

Consider Apple. On the one hand, it’s an example of a company that’s doing everything right. Not only is it wildly successful — Apple saw revenue and profits of $28.27 billion $6.62 billion, respectively, last quarter — but it’s also ostensibly good. Its products are class-leading. It either invented or re-invented the markets for digital music, music players, desktop computers, laptop computers, other digital media, smartphones, lightweight apps, and tablets. The company has succeeded because of its hard work and smarts; Apple is an American success story. 

But Apple is a company that seems to me situated strangely in the public perception. Its rivals for size (measured by market cap) are Exxon, PetroChina, IBM, and Microsoft — not a cohort of consumer-friendly companies. At one point this year, Apple had more money in the bank than the United States itself. It is a literal titan of industry. The Steve Jobs biography, for all its flaws, did a wonderful job pointing out an antimony in Jobs’ character: the man — and the company made in his image — had no problem conceiving of himself as counter-culture hero even as he became a cultural titan and business icon. Jobs’ success at presenting the company as counter-cultural, as much as any design intuition, is one of the most enduring and powerful of Apple’s assets. Apple’s success in retail is owed, ostensibly, to the fact that its products create emotional attachments to users. People (sometimes literally) love their iPhones and iPads. This relationship to technology seems dangerous. It’s dangerous because Apple is not in the love business; it’s in the business business. Apple’s goal is to make money — and lots of it.   

Starting with the obvious, Apple — and many other electronics manufacturers, granted — takes advantage of the dirt-poor costs of doing business in China. Part of the reason why Apple can sell miraculously cheap electronics is because it employs workers who make a monthly salary of $237. Our fabulous iProducts are made by workers who live in their factory, sleeping eight deep in garage-sized bedrooms. Apple’s superior design is often touted as a reason for its success. And it is. But like other overwhelmingly successful companies, it also takes advantage of certain economies of scale to run up the score. Apple’s huge size has allowed it to accrete advantages in momentum like a large boulder rolling down a level hallway. Its huge cash hoard (around $75 billion) allows it to lock up exclusive deals with suppliers, shutting out competition and effectively creating a monopsony by virtue of being the biggest buyer. And the company is able to accumulate such an impressive balance, in part, by dodging billions of dollars in taxes — just like every other so-called ‘evil corporation’.

Relative to other companies, there’s little cause for quarrel with Apple. Its business practices, like virtually every other successful business, are fairly repugnant under scrutiny. This state of affairs is something we’ve come to accept. What’s troubling about Apple is the public perception of the company. Apple doesn’t out-and-out lie like, say, Google (as we’ll see), but it’s disconcerting how effective Apple’s old advertising campaigns were in situating the company as an underdog — a differently thinking, earth-saving alternative to the soulless Windows-Intel alliance. Ever since Apple joined up with Intel in 2005, the company has consolidated its gains and grown at a frightening pace. Its total incorporation into millions of people’s lives is remarkable, and should be something that’s examined rather than taken for granted. Apple is not run by a group of longhaired hippies, and it’s primary directive is not to save the world. This triviality is somehow lost in coverage of the company.

Amazon is a company that never fails to kick up controversy. Richard Russo’s kicked off the latest wave with an op-ed in the New York Times detailing the online retailer’s shamefully blunt holiday shopping strategy of trying to steal potential buyers directly out from under brick-and-mortar sellers. Farhad Manjoo (of Slate) responded to Russo with the typical technology evangelist’s sort-of libertarian zeal. Manjoo claims Amazon offers consumer-friendly advantages to conventional booksellers in the form of customer reviews and a recommendation engine that’s based on your reading history. He also cites Amazon’s low prices as creating a virtuous circle of reading: “the lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read”. The problem with these eminently reasonable-sounding claims is that they’re factually wrong. In the aggregate, to affect ranking, customer reviews are notoriously unreliable. A recent piece by Onnesha Roychoudhuri rebuts Mr. Manjoo’s other points. Amazon’s book recommendation algorithm is based on purchase history and paid placements. Worse, the virtuous circle of reading can be logically demolished by keeping in mind that publishers, editors, marketers — every person involved in the creation of books — makes less money on a lower-priced book, and as price decreases, the book industry will contract in one way or another that shall leave readers with fewer choices.

Throughout Ms. Roychoudhuri’s piece, Amazon is shown as a thuggish enterprise. Instead of reaching an equilibrium where supply and demand determine the correct price of books, Amazon artificially manipulates demand by slashing its prices to the lowest possible point. When publishers cannot acquiesce to further and further (potentially illegal) requests for greater discounts, Amazon simply pulls the books from its search results or even takes away the ability for consumers to buy the publisher’s books. When John Sargent, CEO of publishing giant Macmillan went to negotiate with Amazon over the price of e-books, the online bookseller stopped selling Macmillan’s books. Amazon’s petulant capitulation, saying that Macmillan “has a monopoly over their own titles”, stinks to high heaven with entitlement: of course the publisher has a ‘monopoly’ on its own titles. Amazon’s hardball negotiating tactics show that it wants that monopoly. The company’s own entrance into book publishing (and its dubious practices there) show Amazon’s end game solution: create an environment where Amazon is the only game in town to buy and sell things online.

Amazon will have trouble reaching that point, though because of its main competitor for online dominance: Google. Apple positioned itself opposite Big Brother in its famous Super Bowl ad; Google is Big Brother. The company’s former CEO (now Chairman) Eric Schmidt is on record over and over saying Big Brotherly things. Talking about online privacy, Schmidt said in 2009, “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”. The next year, Schmidt zeroed in on what people should be doing: “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next”. Elsewhere, Schmidt voiced the company’s philosophy, saying, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it”. Apparently, the “creepy line” is somewhere down the road from violating certain US laws concerning online advertising and pharmaceuticals, as well.

People in the content industry, small businesses, and the merely vain are all familiar in some ways with Google’s methodology for its search engine rankings. The company’s primary business offering is its index of websites. Just like the index of a book, Google’s index points to a vast amount of the web’s content based on different topics, looked for as search queries. Ideally, Google’s search results would offer the most relevant information based on user queries. Google seemed to start off on this foot. Where the company’s gone wrong is in violating Kurt Vonnegut’s advice from Cat’s Cradle: never index your own book.

Google’s results are somewhat capricious-seeming, but it’s the biggest, most-trusted search engine on the net. The company’s business model is based ostensibly on supplying the best search results, and then making money by showing contextual ads, which at worst are annoying and at best offer users helpful links. A way Google is subtly changing the reality of the internet, then, is by manipulating its natural search results, adding items to the index that don’t necessarily belong there.

Looking at the screen capture above, you can see that a search for “coffee” brings only one ‘natural’ result above the fold (above the portion you have to scroll down to see). The rest of the (valuable) SERP real estate is taken up first by Google’s recommended brands and stores, and then various places that are supposed to be geographically nearby. Google seems to want you to think that its ranking process is the result of a well-engineered, faultless algorithm, sort of like how evolution by natural selection is an algorithmic process that selects for the best-suited species. Google, unlike empirical nature, has a lot of money at stake in the outcome of its algorithm, though. All parts of the SERP are ‘artificial’ in that they’re engineered by Google to appear as the search company wants them to. Related stores and brands privilege the companies who already dominate the industry, and Google Places rankings depend on how well-integrated a business is with Google’s various web offerings.

The SERP is even worse in the screen capture above. Here, a search for “rice cooker” results with a ‘natural’ result barely peaking out above the fold. The rest of the SERP is ads, stores and brands, and shopping results. You will also notice that Walmart figures prominently on the SERP, with six direct links to the store, four of which by virtue of being the highest bidder and large retailer. Even when large retailers brazenly cheat Google’s system, they’re retained in the index. Many small businesses and websites simply get ‘de-listed’, removed from the Google index, making them effectively invisible to the millions of searchers.

The thinking behind Google’s SERPs gets even more convoluted when, rather than catering to its giant advertising business, its ‘natural’ results compete with Google itself. Google’s recent purchase of ITA Software, a travel fare-search company, has resulted in a flight search widget that allows Google to insert itself into the process of booking flights. Google Books and YouTube results dominate the SERP for more and more searches. Google earned more than $9 billion last quarter on its ad revenue alone, but its recent acquisitions and search engineering show that it’s interested more and more not only in advertising, but in becoming the main portal through which people actually use the internet.

Google’s strategic aims are not intrinsically bad. Like Amazon and Apple, Google is trying to maximize its profits for shareholders, and its fearsome power comes from the market. The dishonest aspects of the company are what make it pernicious. Take this latest example of Google’s conflicted policies: a song created by filesharing site MegaUpload had its video pulled from YouTube at the behest of Universal Music Group. UMG has no copyright claim to the song, the reason generally given for taking down videos. Rather, UMG has a deal with YouTube that allows it to request videos be taken down; a letter from UMG’s legal representation claims it has contractual “rights in this regard [to take down videos] not limited to copyright infringement”. Like Amazon’s ability above to de-list books, like Google’s search results going to either the highest bidder or Google’s own properties, this deal with UMG allows the two giants to constitute the basis of reality on the internet.

You don’t have to be a tecnophobe or luddite to see the danger of companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google invisibly bolstering our lives. There’s both an opportunity cost to ease, and a real social cost to the every day chipping away of human autonomy at the seeming inexpensive of more adoption of technology. We should be aware of this cost.

The release of a new gadget from Apple is an event dwarfing movie openings, rock concerts, and major sporting events. But a new iPhone is not a life-changing event for anyone other than, perhaps, Apple shareholders and employees of the Cupertino company. The social costs of a new iPhones are the exigencies of Apple’s manufacturing process, its extremely low tax burden, and the demise of competing products. A world made up of only Apple products may be a wonderland of design and ease, but it’s also a world made by humans, not angels. So it is a world that probably under-serves women. It’s a world that tracks your text messages and phone calls. A world of free two-day shipping via Amazon Prime is also wonderful; you can get fifty pound bags of dog food, TVs, and the latest best seller all delivered to your door for free, in two days, and for 40% off full retail price. But there are myriad social costs to Amazon, too: a shifted tax base, ruinous effects on the local economy, and a disincentive for publishers to take chances on new authors. 

Beyond these social costs, there’s something seriously dangerous to way in which Amazon and Google serve to re-make the internet to serve the highest bidder. This artificial constitution of the web runs counter to the desires of virtually all private citizens (whether they know it or not) and even its inventor. Users have a reasonable expectation for search rankings and product listings to happen ‘organically’, but there is no such thing, and Amazon and Google are not going out of their way to let their customers know about it.

It’s this dishonesty more than anything else — the obfuscation of where our goods are made (or our search results are formed) — that is the worst part of the seamless integration of fabulous technology into our lives. When someone Googles around for the best coffee maker, or searches on Amazon for a good book, there’s the expectation of objectivity, because that’s what we’re used to. The government forces media to be give fair treatment to opposing sides of an issue; protects consumers from fraud; and provides a system of recourse to the wronged. But the opaque business practices of the Apples, Amazons, and Googles of the world — coupled with the naively utopian expectation alternately set and demolished by the breathless tech press — runs roughshod over the implicit fairness we’ve come to expect from late capitalist society. It’s an odd expectation to have, yet what should we expect when Apple and Google spend millions of dollars telling us to “Think Different” and “Don’t be evil”. We’ve come to expect access to the internet to be as basic a need as electricity and water, but the actual internet as used by normal people is a highly constructed experience, shaped by the biggest companies in the world. We need to examine our relationship with these technology companies. A failure to do so results in people becoming an extension of technology, rather than the other way around.

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