It’s difficult for me to read Jonathan Taplin’s cri de coeur about Google and other technology companies  that have come to dominate the top tier of successful American corporations without wincing in sympathy on his behalf.
But the pain I feel is not grounded in Taplin’s certainty that something amoral, libertarian and unregulated is undermining democracy. Instead, it’s in Taplin’s profound misunderstanding of both the innovations and social changes that have made these companies not merely successful but also—for most Americans—vastly useful in enabling people to stay connected, express themselves and find the goods and services (and, even more importantly, communities) they need.
“It is impossible to deny that Facebook, Google and Amazon have stymied innovation on a broad scale,” Taplin argues in his screed. He wants Google to divest itself of DoubleClick, in theory because the search engine would be much better if it were unable to generate profits from digitized ad services. He wants Facebook to unload WhatsApp, because the world was much better when connected citizens in the developing world had to pay 10 cents for each SMS message they sent. None of this really amounts to reform and, of course, such “reforms” wouldn’t touch companies like Apple or Microsoft in the least.
What Taplin really wants isn’t to reform but to reframe. He wants us to understand current tech-company leaders as evil, or at least amoral and out of control. Toward this end, he begins his new book (a much more extended version of his Times screed) by ominously quoting Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough.”
Despite his misreading of the underlying technologies shaping today’s digital world, Taplin—founding director and now director emeritus of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab—is no dummy. He knows that if he asks ordinary internet users whether they hate or love Google or Amazon or Facebook (or whether they’ll willingly part with their new iPhones) he’s not going to get a lot of buy-in. Even under a hypothetical President Bernie Sanders, regulating Google as a monopoly wouldn’t be a meat-and-potatoes issue.
Instead, Taplin creates a counter-narrative in which American technology successes (with the notable exception of Microsoft) represent the kind of rapacious octopus-like capitalism so often caricatured by cartoonists like Thomas Nast. Google and Facebook may not hurt me in particular, but the theory he offers is that they somehow hurt America in the abstract. Taplin essentially reframes American tech success as a retelling of the oil, railroad, banking and telegraph robber-baron trusts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
But the very tech companies whose success Taplin is absolutely certain is anti-democratic were built on infrastructure and resources that, under federal law and regulation, have been highly regulated throughout his (and my) lifetime. We may disagree about what the regulations should be, but there’s little disagreement that there’s already a regulatory framework. The regulation of monopoly infrastructures—telephone and telegraph networks, in particular—were what made it possible to refrain from regulating what you said or did on those networks. Regulation at the “wire” level of the infrastructure—and at various technical levels above that—created the space for today’s innovative services that provide near-instantaneous access to, potentially, all the information in the world and all the people with whom you would want to stay in touch.
Search engines and other digital tools are, of course, highly disruptive to industries whose traditional model involved having school-age kids hawking ink and wood pulp on street corners. Like Taplin, I still believe newspaper journalism is essential to democracy. Indeed, I read Taplin’s op-ed early Sunday morning because I subscribe to the digital edition of The New York Times. We must continue to explore new ways to make this necessary journalism not merely survive, but thrive.
But it also bears mentioning that Taplin doesn’t mention Craig Newmark or Craigslist in his screed against Google, even though, if you were to buy into the fundamentals of Taplin’s argument, Craigslist clearly did more to erode daily newspapers’ advertising revenue than Google has ever done. And, yet, at the same time, it’s worth noting here that Newmark—like most of the other successful tech moguls Taplin lumps together into a sort of secret-handshake techno-libertarian fraternity—actually gives money to Poynter, ProPublica and other enterprises that actively respond to the very real problem of very fake news.
A little research into the history of scientific discovery puts even the scary Zuckerberg quote about “breaking stuff” in a different light. The philosopher Karl Popper opens his essential book Conjectures and Refutations with two quotations: “Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes,” from Oscar Wilde and “Our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible,” from the physicist John Archibald Wheeler.
That sentiment—to be adventurous, to risk things, to learn quickly from making mistakes quickly—is, I believe, exactly what Zuckerberg was getting at. It also extends to making mistakes in our search for a new business model for journalism. But this shouldn’t include Jonathan Taplin’s great big mistake of looking into the digital future and seeing only places we’ve been before.
Image by Everett Historical 
- “Jonathan Taplin’s cri de coeur about Google and other technology companies”: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/22/opinion/sunday/is-it-time-to-break-up-google.html?_r=1
- “Everett Historical”: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/EverettHistorical