Pluralistic: 08 Mar 2022

Today's links

A 'big brain' Talosian alien from 'The Cage,' the 1965 pilot for Star Trek: the original series; the alien's face has been replaced with Mark Zuckerberg's.

How and why to break up Big Tech (permalink)

My latest Locus Magazine column is "Vertically Challenged," an analysis of why and how to break up Big Tech, and the changing narratives of tech leaders that make these breakups likely.

Science fiction has always trafficked in tales of supergenius business tycoons – sometimes as heroes whose singular vision shines through our collective foolishness, and sometimes as supervillains whose great intellect allows them to subordinate whole nations to their self-interested plans.

These narratives have been of enormous use to the tech leaders who conquered the tech landscape. At first, they styled themselves as Tony Stark-style superbeings whose wisdom was so beyond our ken that they could not be challenged. Then, as that narrative grew stale, they pivoted to styling themselves as evil supergeniuses whose empires emerged from their transhuman mental powers, who cannot be removed without risking the very firmament of our digital society.

That's where the debate over tech has arrived at: the idea that we must preserve giants like Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon to continue to derive the benefits they deliver, and that only the great geniuses at their helms are qualified to lead them. In this narrative, the best we can hope for is to create constitutional monarchies, in which we acknowledge the permanent divine right to rule of King Zuck, but drape him in golden chains anchored by regulatory aristocrats who keep him from getting too frisky.

Or, to switch metaphors, these tech tycoons are styled as superpowerful extraterrestrials, irreplaceable, who must be tamed and directed by governments to serve as "national champions" who will represent our domestic interests by projecting power over the globe on our behalf.

But science fiction is (as usual) way ahead of the tech narrative-generation machine. In sf, we've generally fallen out of love with the tycoon – where these business titans appear, they are revealed to be bumbling sociopaths whose unique talent is in ignoring their consciences as they cheat, crush and loot their way to power.

It's time to start thinking about the tech giants this way. It's time to recognize that the reason that the tech giants of yesteryear – DEC, Sun, Commodore, Silicon Graphics, etc – rose and fell is that we banned them from buying their way to eternal rule. The muscular antitrust that began its slow decline with Ronald Reagan (accelerating with every administration thereafter) prevented dominant firms from merging, acquiring, or spending their way to the top of the heap. Antitrust once blocked companies' below-cost predatory pricing to fend off rivals, horizontal mergers that increased industry concentration, and, importantly, vertical mergers that gobbled up the supply chain.

Today, vertical mergers and vertical monopolies are the backbone of platform capitalism. Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others have created "two-sided marketplaces" that connect buyers and sellers, in which they also participate as buyers and sellers. That means that Microsoft can control the lion's share of the sale of games – and also compete with the games studios whose wares it sells. Apple can do the same for apps, and Google and Facebook can do it for ads (FB also wants to do it for VR).

These companies argue that they can be fair referees in a contest where they own one of the teams, because they are so fair-minded that they would never call one for their own side unless they deserved it. It's an outrageous argument, like saying that a judge is so fair-minded that is doesn't matter if they preside over a case in which their mother is the plaintiff.

To the extent that regulators recognize the fundamental unfairness of this arrangement, they have no idea what to do about it. The leading proposal is to ban "self-preferencing," forcing companies to serve the "best" results at the top of a search or in an ad slot. This is an un-administrable nightmare of a proposal. If Google serves a link to its own page in a search for today's weather, how do you prove that another weather service is "better?" If Apple pushes Apple Music over rival music apps, how can you tell which music app is "best?" This is a policy that can only be successfully managed from deep inside Plato's Cave, where the objective truth of all things is revealed without ambiguity.

There is another way, one with a track-record of success: "structural separation." That's a rule that bans platform operators and gatekeepers from owning companies that compete with the businesses they serve. For example, structural separation banned railroads from owning freight companies that competed with the freighters they relied upon; and it banned banks from owning businesses that competed with their own borrowers.

In other words, just as we ban judges from hearing cases involving family members and lawyers from representing both sides and referees from judging games involving teams they own, we banned companies from structuring markets they participated in. You can be a platform, or a vendor on that platform, but not both.

We could do that again!

Now, the tech giants clearly saw this one coming. Take Google, which maintains the fiction that it actually a company called "Alphabet" that runs all of its business-units as standalone companies, practically inviting regulators to cut along the dotted lines Google drew for it. But a close look at Alphabet's structure shows that the profitable divisions are all grouped together under the "Google" banner, while the rest of the A-Z is just a bunch of weird money-losing skunkworks projects. This is such a transparent ruse – it's like a naughty kid saying, "OK, I did it, now punish me by taking away my delicious boiled liver and nutritious Brussels sprouts." Sorry kid, we're taking away your ice-cream.

Some of these calls are easy to make: ban anyone who runs an app- or game-store from making apps or games that are sold in the store and ban Amazon from competing with the businesses that sell in its marketplace.

But as the economist Ramsi Woodcock has argued to me, some vertical integration is part of every business. A company could outsource its receptionist, or sales-force, or customer service (many do). Does that mean that any company that doesn't contract for these services is guilty of maintaining a vertical monopoly?

It's a very good argument, but I don't think the tech companies have the guts to make it. To do so would be to invite scrutiny into the contradiction of their own outsource/insource divisions. Apple apparently absolutely must maintain its own app store to maintain its high standards of safety and ethics, but for some mysterious reason it absolutely can't run its own factories, which would let it end forced labor and other sweatshop conditions. Facebook must own its own VR platform, but it can't run its own moderation shops, and instead must traumatize thousands of low-waged workers in the Pacific Rim by forcing them to confront child sexual abuse material, beheading videos and other horrors.

Or Amazon, which has vertically integrated its own publisher, warehousing, audiobook business, house brands, cloud, and video business, but can't possibly deliver its own parcels and instead must rely on multiple layers of contractors and sub-contractors to do work that is dangerous, precarious, and pays less than minimum wage.

The case of Amazon delivery is particularly illustrative here: as Lauren Kaori Gurley writes in a brilliant Motherboard piece today, Amazon used the pandemic to create a vast subcontractor empire of delivery drivers who bore all the risk and expense of delivering our parcels within its ever-shrinking promised delivery windows:

Then Amazon rugpulled these "independent companies," terminating its contracts with no notice or explanation, demanding nondisclosure agreements that would prevent company owners from telling their drivers that their jobs would disappear in a matter of weeks. These companies took on all of Amazon's delivery risk – "accidents, injuries, van damage and upkeep" – and then cut these "business owners" loose, sending them into bankruptcy due to long-term leases on vans and parking, workplace injury liabilities, and bills for the vans Amazon told them to buy.

Despite the fact that businesses from time immemorial have maintained their own fleets and drivers, Amazon argues that it's literally impossible to operate these crucial business operations on its own. It is – but only because Amazon preys upon small business owners and drivers, suckering them into arrangements where they pick up the tab for Amazon's critical infrastructure while Amazon skims off the profits.

Perhaps we need a doctrine of structural integration as well as separation. If there's a history of a company ruining lives and the environment by outsourcing a key function and then acting all confused and sad as it happens, over and over, maybe we should force them to take those businesses in-house. If you can't make an iPhone, deliver a parcel or serve an ad without cheating, polluting, exploiting or losing money, then maybe you don't really have a profitable business. Maybe you're not a supergenius. Maybe you're just another mediocre sociopath who's only talent is figuring out how to stick innocents with the bill for your toxic behavior.

(Image: Anthony Quintano; CC BY 2.0, modified; Paramount/Star Trek, modified)

The cover of the Macmillan edition of 'The Rise of Everything' by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

The Dawn of Everything (permalink)

We've lost so much to the pandemic. Every day I wake up and think of all the lives snuffed out, all the plans smashed, all the stories never told. I think about poor David Graeber, whom I spoke with just a few weeks before his sudden and tragic death in September 2020.

David was a superb writer and an insightful scholar and activist. He helped formulate Occupy's rallying cry, "We are the 99%" and he wrote magisterial popular works of anthropology like "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" and the incredible "Bullshit Jobs."

Last autumn, Macmillan published David's final book, a collaboration with the equally brilliant archaeologist David Wengrow, which they worked on together for a decade and finished shortly before Graeber's untimely death.

I've been reading the book since its publication, taking it slowly and digesting the wealth of beautifully presented evidence for its core argument: that the shape of societies – hierarchical or non, authoritarian or free – is not foreordained by our technology or living arrangements. That we are free to choose who we want to be: equal or unequal, coercive or free, warlike or peaceful.

The Davids begin their book with the Enlightenment and the two poles of its views on civilization. First, there's the Hobbesian view that we once lived as violent "primitives" whose bestial natures were tamed by the emergence of the hierarchies that inevitably arise with agriculture and are needed to manage the complexity of cities. Then there's Rousseau, who argued that our "primitive" past was a time of pastoral equality and freedom, but that could not survive the hierarchies that inevitably accompany agriculture and are a regrettable necessity of cities.

Both Rousseau and Hobbes make it clear that these views are thought-experiments, not based on any observation or evidence of these "pre-civilized" ways of being; in their work (and in the writings of other Englightenment thinkers), they make arguments that they claim originated with indigenous Americans.

The attribution of heterodox, egalatarian and anti-coercive ideas to indigenous people is a commonplace of the Enlightenment. From multi-volume, best-selling, widely translated Jesuit accounts of dialogs with American indigenous intellectuals to sold-out plays that ran in Paris for decades, the Enlightenment attributed its ideology of liberty, autonomy and egalatarianism to indigenous people of the "New World."

And yet, today, these attributions are widely discounted. They are characterized as convenient fairy tales spun by European thinkers who feared violent retribution – expulsion or even death – from the establishment if they put these thoughts in their own mouths, so they put them in the mouths of hypothetical "savages" from across the ocean.

But the Davids make a very compelling case – citing First Nations historians and anthropologists as well as the primary documents of the residents of New France and other American outposts of European societies – that the Enlightenment began with indigenous intellectuals of the Americas. These thinkers hailed from societies where leaders had to rely on persuasion, rather than coercion, to get people to follow their plans. They lived in societies that valued oratory, logic and rhetoric, where the natural response to an objectionable proposition was a devastating counterargument.

These indigenous intellectuals were responsible for "the Indigenous Critique" – a series of dialogs that spanned generations, crisscrossing the Atlantic both in written form and in person, as indigenous intellectuals visited Europe and mercilessly shredded the pre-Enlightenment consensus, inspiring European thinkers to the Enlightenment.

These Europeans – and their intellectual descendants – have devoted much of the time since in trying to formulate a theory for how we ended up the way we are: hierarchical, unequal, coercive. Starting with Rousseau and Hobbes, they spun a theory of the inevitable evolution of society: bands that yield tribes (whether noble or savage), that create agriculture and surplus and kings, that lead to cities and bureaucracy and hierarchy to manage complexity.

But – the Davids argue – the very origins of the Enlightenment disprove this hypothesis. The woodland people of the American northeast – source of the Indigenous Critique – lived in many ways. Some had agriculture but not hierarchy; some had hierarchy and not agriculture. The Americas had vast cities that were self-managed by local councils, and loose confederacies that were highly bureaucratized.

This is the jumping off point for a dizzying, thorough, beautifully told series of histories of ancient civilizations, many of which have only come into focus thanks to recent advances in archaeological technology. They show that every conceivable variation on centralization, coercion, hierarchy, violence, agriculture and urbanism has existed, in multiple places, for hundreds or thousands of years at a time.

More importantly, they reveal how thin the evolutionary theory of human civilization has worn. To maintain the neat picture of societies inevitable "progressing" through "stages," we need to deploy increasingly unconvincing tricks, like calling 5,000 year periods of cultural stability "intermediate" or "early" or "late."

But, the Davids say, something has happened. We've gotten stuck, here in the "modern" era. Civilizations through human history have all enjoyed some mix of three key freedoms:

I. The freedom to go somewhere else and expect to be welcomed thanks to duties of hospitality;

II. The freedom to disobey orders;

III. The freedom to imagine a different social arrangement.

These three freedoms are so thoroughly expunged from most of our modern world that we can barely imagine them. Indeed, much of the Davids' work in this books is showing how the people who enjoyed these freedoms led complex, introspective, imaginative lives, rather than existing in a near-animal state.

They suggest that the most important of these freedoms is the third one – the freedom to imagine something else. Though they don't invoke "capitalist realism" by name here, it's highly relevant. When Margaret Thatcher declared "there is no alternative" (to unfettered, unequal, destructive unregulated market capitalism), she wanted it to be "easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" (Jameson).

The attack in imagination itself is the source of our immobilization, our incapacity to disobey orders, our helpless, fatalistic hurtling towards nuclear armageddon and climate collapse.

Seen in this light, Dawn of Everything is a crucial intervention, fuel for a new imagination of a world governed by a radically different theory of human nature. We can organize ourselves without hierarchy, without inequality, without coercion. Our ancestors built stable societies with radically different social arrangements, no matter whether they were complex or simple, urban or agricultural or nomadic.

The just-so story that says we must live this way is well past its sell-by date and I think we know it. Between the pandemic and the wars raging around the world, there is an urgent appetite for change. So much of that urgency has been channeled into authoritarianism, xenophobia and hate, because we've lost our ability to imagine solidarity. Lost it? It was stolen from us, but ideological "science" that cherry-picked the evidence to claim that our world was inevitable, not contingent.

David Graeber was one of the most hopeful people I knew, someone who could dream of other ways of being together, whose dreams were informed by his deep scholarship. Most of all, he was able to convey that vision to others.

He and Wengrow produced an important, world-changing book. Read it, and you will never be the same again.

(Image: Macmillan)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago EFF Pioneer Award winners: Schneier, Benkler, me

#10yrsago ACLU sues school district for student’s social media free speech rights

#10yrsago HOWTO get metal through a TSA full-body scanner

#10yrsago Danish trade minister and ACTA booster apologise for bogus piracy numbers

#10yrsago Maher Arar on Canada’s pro-torture policy

#5yrsago In Russia, where wife-beating is legal, socialists celebrate Women’s Day with feminist guerrilla “ads”

#5yrsago SXSW will remove contractual immigration threats for international artists who play the show

#5yrsago What will the 25th century call the 21st century?

#5yrsago Radio Shack is bankrupt. Again.

#5yrsago Russian dissident warns that the anti-Trump movement’s Russian conspiracy theories are a distraction

#5yrsago Who is immigration policy for: “taxpayers,” “ordinary people” or all citizens?

#5yrsago How the GOP’s simplified Border Adjustment Tax will be instantly riddled with loopholes

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 510 words (70222 words total).

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. Yesterday's progress: 265 words (4297 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: All (Broadband) Politics Are Local
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Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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