But a focus on the wealth also obscures the unprecedented accumulation of power by tech giants and the lack of any significant regulation or incentives for real accountability. They are always going to be very rich, so get used to it, but they don’t necessarily have to be as powerful if we act now.
And this must be the main topic of a congressional hearing on Monday when the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee questions the four top tech leaders: Mr. Bezos, Mr. Zuckerberg, Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, owner of Google and YouTube.
The gathering of all four chief executives is a big deal, even if some think that appearing as a group will give each individual leader cover, resulting in less substantive questioning. And there are worries that the event will lack the usual drama, since it is likely to be largely remote, due to the coronavirus.
But it’s critical that lawmakers block out all the noise that has grown around the industry and aim at only discussing the repercussions of unfettered power. All the major problems related to tech stem directly from this, whether it be privacy violations or hate speech and misinformation or unfair market dominance or addiction or … fill in the blank.
We must think of it all as systemic, fueled by complete control over certain areas by tech companies, without adequate guardrails from publicly elected officials, which every other major industry has been subject to. Tech does not play by the rules only because there are no rules to speak of. So why shouldn’t they do as they please?
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who more recently co-founded the Center for Humane Technology, put it perfectly in a podcast interview with me last year: “We need to move from this disconnected set of grievances and scandals, that these problems are seemingly separate: tech addiction, polarization, outrage-ification of culture, the rise in vanities, micro-celebrity culture, everyone has to be famous. These are not separate problems. They’re actually all coming from one thing, which is the race to capture human attention by tech giants.”
And it has become a completely fixed race. Because of their heft, these behemoths block every lane and there is no space for innovative small companies to pass them, especially those that are faster or with better ideas. The debate about breakup or levying fines or writing regulations should also be a debate about innovation. What about all of the useful inventions that do not happen when there is only one or maybe two real games in town in social media, in search, in online video, in apps and in e-commerce.