Sunday Read: Move Fast and Break Things

Back in the twentieth century it might have seemed reasonable to cut all those internet start-ups a bit of slack. But now, when the digital giants dominate the landscape?

Illustration by Rosalind Duguid

Which of the following entities poses the greatest threat to your future prospects:

a. Donald Trump;

b. Kim Jong-un;

c. Facebook, Google and Amazon?

The answer will depend a bit on how you interpret “future prospects”—that is, whether you take it to mean your prospects of making a living or your prospects of just going on living at all. Whereas Messrs Trump and Kim represent a long-odds threat of universal Armageddon, bets are no longer being taken on the possible menace posed by the “algorithmic gods” to the creative industries; the effects have long been evident.

In the digital age, visual art enjoys a relatively protected status owing to the uniqueness of the art object. People will still pay top dollar for the Benjaminian aura of the original. If the internet allows a lot more punters to gawp at any given work, in the end only one person (or a handful of people, if the work is produced as an edition) can actually own and share space with it, and scarcity and physical presence sustain market values.

The internet’s more destructive effects are in greater evidence when it comes to cinematic or musical works, where there is no original or where the original enjoys a less elevated status. The millionth downloaded copy of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning is as good as the first—believe me, I’ve compared them note for note. This makes it easy to obtain such works illegally, without payment—which is where author Jonathan Taplin, a veteran of the pre-digital-era creative industries, comes in. “Take your charity and shove it,” he once told the Alexis Ohanian in an open letter written in response to a condescending gesture from the Reddit founder. “Just let us get paid for our work and stop deciding that you can unilaterally make it free.” Taplin has a beef with the “don’t ask permission” ethos of the online companies that have been so cavalier with others’ copyrights.

“It’s easy to come over all misty-eyed when you think about the benefits Google and their techno-deterministic peers have brought us humble mortals.”

Taplin was a tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band at the time the internet was first conceived by a counterculture in love with the idea of bringing about a vast technological decentralization and, with it, deliver liberty to the masses (“Geeks on acid, dreaming of the future”). But the digital domain these freedom-lovin’ (not to mention free-lovin’) radicals brought into being has paradoxically given rise to extraordinary new concentrations of power in the form of monopolies for whom “data is the new oil”. Tim Berners-Lee, sainted inventor of the World Wide Web, has observed: “popular and successful services (search, social networking, email) have achieved near-monopoly status.” Taplin uses his subtitle to say something similar, only in more uncompromising name-naming terms: “How Facebook, Google and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and What It Means For Us All”. The money these days is in distributing rather than creating cultural artefacts.

It’s easy to come over all misty-eyed when you think about the benefits Google and their techno-deterministic peers have brought us humble mortals. All that connectivity! All those great apps! But it’s important to bear in mind what their core business could be said to be too. As former assistant attorney general Thomas Barnett told a Senate antitrust subcommittee in September 2011: “First of all, remember they [Google] are an advertising company.” Less sexy, no?

“Taplin speculates on the amusing possibility that Google’s pre-eminence might one day grow so great that it will be declared a public utility.”

The law has been strangely quiescent in the creation of these new monopolies; but there again the law has been curiously passive in its engagement with the digital world tout court. “The basic laws governing the Internet were passed in 1998, at a time when it took four hours to download a movie and twenty minutes to download a song,” Taplin states. Back in the twentieth century it might have seemed reasonable to cut all those internet start-ups a bit of slack. But now, when the digital giants dominate the landscape? An article that appeared in the Guardian in 2015 noted: “Were Google a [traditional, real-world] manufacturer, say, a monopoly such as it has over internet search would never be allowed.” Taplin speculates on the amusing possibility that Google’s pre-eminence might one day grow so great that it will be declared a public utility.

In the meantime, if you want to make the world a slightly better place, don’t vote for Trump or Kim next time (I know you did last time), and maybe don’t buy absolutely everything from Amazon either. Monopolies, like political dictatorships, are bad for your health.

(I should add that, in an act of stout resistance to the contemporary cultural imperative set forth in Taplin’s title, which is derived from the Zuckerbergian business-means-disruption mantra “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough”, I haven’t moved at all fast in writing this review—the book was published in May—and nothing was broken in the course of its making either. But even in our madly disruptive, mould-smashing age, Taplin’s words still have resonance five months after their first appearance. Astonishing!)

Jonathan Taplin’s “Move Fast and Break Things” is out now, published by Macmillan.