Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. But when they get angry they bring about change.”
– Malcolm X
This article deals with the juggernaut the “Frightful Five” have on the world’s communications, as well as their influence on laws and politics, and the rising class of rootless angry people.
Last month was not a great month for America’s tech oligopolies.
Google’s Paris offices were raided by French investigators. The European Commission proposed a new set of rules that would mandate 20% of Netflix’s content be European made. Fearful Europeans are consuming too much English language content, the Commission is also targeting Amazon’s streaming video services. Reportedly, the Royal Spanish Academy has launched a campaign to try to stop advertising from adopting more Anglicisms. In addition to the rumblings in Europe, the Indian government just thwarted Apple’s plan to sell refurbished iPhones in the country. The Indian government moved to shut down Facebook’s free internet plan, which had been widely criticized there as a kind of Trojan horse to take over India’s digital infrastructure.
As The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo wrote earlier this month: “The American tech giants are huge, but they need the blessing of national governments, and those blessings aren’t coming easily.” Or do they need them?
The internet was billed as a greater democratizing force—a decentralized medium that would give everyone an equal voice. But, it has not evolved that way. As Manjoo wrote:
Over the last decade, we have witnessed the rise of what I like to call the Frightful Five. These companies—Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, Google’s parent—have created a set of inescapable tech platforms that govern much of the business world. The five have grown expansive in their business aims and invincible to just about any competition…
In the rest of the world, the Frightful Five is often seen as a reason for fear, not comfort. In part that’s because of a worry about American hegemony: The bigger these companies get, the less room they leave for local competition—and the more room for possible spying by the United States government.
There is a deeper fear of usurpation through tech—a worry that these companies could grow so large and become so deeply entrenched in world economies that they could effectively make their own laws. The rise in anti-globalization in the US and many other countries will come to roost on the algorithms of the Frightful Five.
“What’s happening right now is the nation-state is losing its grip,” Jane K. Winn, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, said in a recent New York Times piece. “One of the hallmarks of modernity is that you have a nation-state that claims they are the exclusive source of a universal legal system that addresses all legal issues. But now people in one jurisdiction are subject to rules that come from outside the government—and often it’s companies that run these huge networks that are pushing their own rules.” More subtly, America’s tech giants also embody globalization’s growing threat to national and cultural identities—even as far as one’s roots.
As Manjoo suggests: “Imagine you’re a French lawmaker. For decades, you’ve protected your nation’s cultural output with the diligence of a gardener tending a fragile patch against invasive killer weeds…And now, out of nowhere, comes a handful of American technology companies to wash away all your cultural defenses. Suddenly just about everything that a French citizen buys, reads, watches or listens to flows in some way or another through these behemoths.”
Manjoo’s observation raises some critical questions. What happens to the diversity of global identities if “American” networks replace nations? And more broadly: Is globalization impairing our ability to feel “rooted”? My answer is clearly “yes” and the consequences are already evident.
Princeton professor Christy Wampole, author of Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor, argues that national and cultural identity—one’s roots—matter even more in our highly networked where certainties are hard to come by. “All people seek a context into which they may enfold themselves. If we truly are wired for connectedness, we’ve gotten our wish in a sense; our unprecedented system of networks has shrunk the globe and at least offered the possibility for new kinds of continuity and growth. But it remains to be seen how this connectivity will be reconciled with individual identities…”
Wampole continues, that perhaps this is what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (both French philosophers, now dead) anticipated in the introduction to their 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus when they suggested that perhaps now more than ever, people have legitimate reasons for feeling alienated from the world and from one another—the greater the level of alienation, the more precious roots become.
She believes, today, people across the world face an array of uprooting and alienating forces: the Syrian refugee crisis, Islamist terrorism, immigration, the identity dissolving tendency of the European Union, global competition, capitalist uniformization and immersive, digital loneliness. Not coincidentally, each of these has been answered in its own way with an appeal to rootedness.
While it is early to conclude anything, the Brexit voters were angry, about a lot of things including the control the EC and large corporations had over their lives. The Frightful Five need a world driven by international laws, communications and politics. Without all three they lose, and thus their active support for the establishment remaining in place, and power.
Marine Le Pen, a French politician who is president of the National Front, and Donald Trump have both risen to political fame due to their recognition that citizens long for the rooted and historically important ingredients of their cultures. French critic and essayist, Michel Tournier, maintained that nearly all human conflicts could be traced to the tensions between rootless and rooted peoples.
Among Tournier’s examples—Cain’s murder of his nomadic brother Abel; the invention of barbed wire in America in the 1800s which caused bloodshed over the rightful ownership of land; the conflicts between the nomadic Tuareg and the settled Saharan peoples; and the Nazis’ demonization of the Jews, imagined as rootless and thus unrighteous transients.
Across the globe, a growing percentage of populations are becoming alienated and uprooted. We are in the early stages of the largest migration the world has ever seen. Technology is not the sole cause, but it is a key driver. Despite, and because of their near monopolistic strength, America’s tech giants are the tangible scapegoat.