Big Tech, the Danger of Monopolies and Saving the Public Sphere

How Big Tech Monopolies Make Us Dependent & Fragile and How They Destroy the Public Sphere

(podcast below)

Introduction

The existence of Big Tech shows us what a terrible problem we have walked ourselves into with the globalization of our world. Monopolies have become impossible to evade. However, a monopoly is dangerous for many reasons. It makes us vulnerable. We have our backs against the wall, and no alternatives. If things go wrong, there is nowhere to run or hide. 

We could wish to get rid of monopolies. That would be amazing. But, as with many argumentations that incorporate words like “should” and “would,” success in the real world seems highly implausible. So, where do we go from here?

In this essay I will attempt to give a somewhat plausible answer. Or at least a theory I have been thinking about. But before that, I will explain how we got here, and why “here,” with all its monopolies, is a rather unpleasant place to be. 

Let us get into it. I am incredibly excited to hear your thoughts about my idea. Please do your very best to shoot it down. If it is a bad idea, I don’t want it to survive. And thanks for reading this.

How We Got Here

Globalization. Winner-takes-all. That’s the shortest version of an explanation. But I will go a bit deeper into the matter. I will be paraphrasing ideas from Taleb in this section, so a thank you to him is in order for making me understand this process. I can only hope I understood it correctly.

Let’s say one day I got up and started a bakery. For some odd reason I have a talent for baking bread, and I make the best bread in the world. Everybody who lives close to me is very happy, because I can supply them with the best bread in the world. People who live outside of my reach will either not know I exist, or will be unable to buy my bread - or both, of course. They are ignorant or unhappy, and they buy their bread at bakeries with worse bread than mine - but still good quality, because us bakers do all have a passion for what we do. 

So, even though I make the best bread in the world, I cannot get that bread to everyone due to a logistical problem. Most people cannot reach me and/or don’t know about me, and I can’t reach most people.

Now introduce globalization. This handy little thing causes me to be able to tell anyone that I make the best bread. Then, if they are interested, I can ship my bread to them no matter where they live. Perhaps at a higher cost than they have to pay at their local bakery, but still. I am not limited anymore by a logistics issue. The infrastructure for a bread-imperium is now available. As soon as I get enough production capacity to deliver bread to the whole world, my superior product will push out all other bakeries, because people want the best product they can get. This way, I establish a monopoly. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. 

This is probably an oversimplified explanation, but you get the idea. Once you take away the barrier to distribution, the product that is only marginally better takes all. It will push out all other choices, even if they are only slightly worse options, because people simply want what is best. That is how we got here. 

The Danger of Monopolies

Business

Let me introduce my dear friend. He is starting a business. For his business to succeed, he is entirely dependent on two companies. You might know them. Facebook and Google. The masters of Big Tech. I would argue it is epic that he can build a business through the services of these companies. However, his journey makes visible one big problem.

Dependence. My dear friend literally has his back against the wall, with nowhere to go. This is necessarily a bad position, even if all is going well. Let me introduce the turkey problem written about by Taleb. This has nothing to do with the nation-state, and everything with the bird one kills on a massive scale during Thanksgiving. 

Taleb says that a turkey has no reason to believe that he will die by the information he gets from the time he is alive. He is always well-fed. Every day again. Until the knife - or whatever is used to kill turkeys, it is not my area of expertise - is used to end his life. Taleb then writes,

The turkey problem can be generalized to any situation where the same hand that feeds you can be the one that wrings your neck.” 

Back from gruesome killing to my dear friend. The same hand that feeds him his business, can be the one to end it. There is nothing he can do about it. There is no reasonable alternative. If Facebook and/or Google throw him off, he cannot call anyone to fix the issue before he goes bankrupt. If Google and/or Facebook decide to become more expensive, his business is done. Even worse, Google and Facebook do not even have to actively target him. A simple change in terms and conditions that has bad fifth-order consequences can terminate my dear friends’ entrepreneurial dream. There is a single point of failure - in this case a double point of failure, which is still a small amount of points - that can end him, with nowhere else to turn if it does. 

Stability

If we rely on a few massive companies, our systems become very fragile. Since, if they fail, many people will be faced with the consequences. Moreover, there is nowhere else to go. It is better for safety to have a few medium-sized players who could absorb the failure of one player. But, if Facebook fails, where do all its users go?

The more we make our lives dependent on fewer and fewer companies, the more we become vulnerable to inevitable issues arising with those companies. Something always goes wrong, and the more centralized a system is, the bigger the consequences. 

We have seen this with the recent issues of Facebook, which took down Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for quite a long while. This showed that the monopoly that Facebook has created a single point of failure that must, at some point, break. If it does, I have no idea what exactly the consequences will be, but it cannot be good. 

So, through centralization of many aspects of our lives in the hands of a few companies, we are making the whole world vulnerable to those companies failing. 

Public Sphere

One of the biggest problems - at least in the opinion of yours truly - exists in the political realm. Silicon Valley is a hotbed of progressive politics. It may not be surprising that the rules they have for their platforms have this bias in them.

Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are censoring certain political ideas, heavily favoring one side over the other, skewing the public sphere to one side. They are demolishing public debate under the guise of language such as “fighting the spread of fake news.” 

You sometimes hear the argument that these are private companies, and they can do what they want. True. However, these private companies have a monopoly on the public sphere. They can decide who gets a platform, they make some people more visible than others, and they can silence people. Since they have a monopoly, there is nowhere else to go, so, basically, these companies control the public sphere. 

Now, you could say, “they are not really using that power in a bad way.” To which I then would reply, “false.” But, that is not the debate here. The position of power they have will most likely lead to an abuse of power to steer an election or public opinion. Because, the same hand that feeds us can wring our necks. And even if all of Big Tech is lead by ethical angels who would never abuse their power, who will rule their systems after them?

So, the problem with monopoly positions is not necessarily so much in the current use of that monopoly, but in the fact that at some point any monopoly will be used for bad things, and that the consequences of such use are catastrophic. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

What now, Sjoerd? Thanks for asking. I have put some thought into this. 

Let’s assume it is impossible to evade the globalized world and go back to a non-globalized society in which we all buy local and kill the internet. We are stuck with this. From which the logical thing follows that we are stuck with monopolies. Because, 

  1. If globalized world, then monopolies

  2. Globalized world → monopolies

It is elsewhere we must find the solution. Perhaps we can find it in the way such companies are governed. Because, if these companies influence us all, would it not be fair that we are better represented in these companies? (there are some legal issues with this assumption, things to do with legal ownership, stocks, etc. But, we are trying to create a new world here, so let us assume such a system is possible).

I have stolen the next idea from the great Naval, who is a God on Twitter. I do not know what he calls it, but I’ll call it “Balanced Ownership on the Basis of Mutual Destruction.” Sounds clever, right? So it must be a good idea. 

Allow me to explain. Naval says that a system is good if you would give it to your enemy and have them use it for the next couple of years. This makes use of the simple game theory strategy “tit-for-tat.” Or, in order words, “if you are nice to me, I’ll be nice to you in return.” From this follows that when the other is not nice, you will not be nice in return.

What I am proposing is a system of rotating ownership between people who think sufficiently different so that many opinions are represented, yet no opinion will skew the whole system to one side. Because, if one side chooses to not play nice to another side, this side will in turn not play nice to them, when it is their time to govern. This will result, in my view, in a balanced way of making decisions, where everybody is trying to find the middle, to be as nice as possible to those who think differently.

Let’s take decisions about political speech on Twitter as a case study. Assume that on the one side you have progressive people, and on the other side you have conservatives. The progressives are the first to be able to make decisions, but they know that some time later, say a year, the conservatives will be in power. Obviously, the progressives could ban conservatives from Twitter, and make it impossible to speak about some subjects that conservatives would like to discuss, but that progressives hate - such as facts, or reality, or jokes, of which this is one. However, they would know that if they created the tools to ban speech and people, those same tools will be used against progressives when the conservatives will make the decisions. 

This will result in progressives either taking a position that is as good as possible for the conservatives, or decisions that create mutual benefit. The rotational governing might create a constant line of communication between the different sides about what to do next. It might even create understanding and compassion amongst those who think differently - which is something we have not seen in a long time - and move the whole group that is eligible to make decisions to the middle. 

Conclusion

There are some great caveats to this idea. For example, how often do you rotate? If you can destroy the other side before the next rotation, there is no element of mutual destruction, and the system falls apart. There are probably many more caveats that I would like you to point out so we can figure out if this is an idea worth improving, or if we should throw it in the bin. 

Another issue is that this idea only solves the issue of the destruction of the public sphere. The issue with stability is not solved, for there will still be monopolies. Another problem arises with business. For, the business of my dear friend is so small, and he is so insignificant in the eyes of the big business and its rotating leadership, that they cannot keep him in mind, and his neck is still in danger of being wrung. How do we solve that?

I will keep thinking about the problems with business with stability. Taleb has done so about stability, and his idea is that many small businesses lure in the shadows of the giants, ready to take the throne if one of the bog boys goes down. This might be correct. If WhatsApp goes down, we might all migrate to Telegram, for example. But, would Telegram be able to process such an immense rise in users in such a short time. Or will it crash? And then where do we go? I simply do not know. 

However, I think this might be a real solution for the destruction of the public sphere. We need to save our political discourse, which is heading to damnation. All Silicon Valley giants lean one way politically, and they seem to be willing to destroy the public sphere to push through ideas in the short-term. The balance of the progressive vs. conservative debate is incredibly important. Taking that away will surely lead the world down a dangerous path. 

As one person once said - and I truly forgot who it was but chances are high it was on the Joe Rogan Experience - conservatism is progressive politics going at the speed limit. If we take off the speed limit, we will progress this world into chaos and destruction. You need conservatives to point out the dangers, and we need progressives to tell us where to go next. 

If we take out that balance, conservatives do not even need mutual destruction. Progressives will destroy themselves. 

We need each other. So my humble request to Big Tech is this. Please do not silence one side of the political spectrum. You are not wise enough to not need them. Not one of us is wise enough to know everything, yet we have the power to destroy everything. Save the balance. 

As Eric Weinstein said,

“We are Gods, but for the wisdom.”

Let us act as if no individual is wise enough. None of us are. 

Thank you for reading this essay. I would love to hear whatever thoughts you have on this subject. 

You can listen to my podcast episode about this subject here: