Against The Four: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

Amazon Apple Facebook Google“The Four” are the giant tech companies Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. You can read all about why they are a problem in Scott Galloway’s informative book, The Four: The Hidden Dna of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Galloway is a Professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, where he teaches brand strategy and digital marketing. He is also the founder of several firms including L2, Red Envelope, and Prophet. In 2012, he was named “one of the world’s 50 best business school professors” (no, this isn’t an oxymoron) by Poets & Quants. Moreover, he has served on the boards of Eddie Bauer, The New York Times Company, Gateway Computer, and Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In other words, this is someone who knows a lot about corporate culture, and not at all a left wing moralist such as myself.

(If you don’t have time to read the book, look at these two articles that turned me onto it, in Wired magazine, and over at the BBC.)

In a nutshell, the problem with The Four is that they simply have far too much power in our lives, both in terms of the information they store about us (and how they use it), and of their financial muscle, which of course easily turns into political influence. From the BBC article:

“The four most important tech companies aren’t even just tech companies anymore. They each have embedded themselves in our lives, hugely influencing us by playing to our basic human instincts: from the eternal human search for answers to our need for love. … [Galloway] also says that the companies’ deep pockets and massive customer base are what allow the companies to start competing in different sectors and industries – like how Amazon is now producing original TV content, or how Facebook has more or less emerged as a news media platform. That has prompted scepticism and warnings from critics at places like the New York Times and Bloomberg.”

And that was before Amazon bought Whole Foods, for instance. You can dig into the details yourself, no point for me to repeat here easily found material. My objection to The Four is ethical: I am generally skeptical of any concentration of power, especially in the private sector (but not only: governments are a little better to the extent that they really are accountable to their people by means of a not too dysfunctional democracy. The US Government does not, at this point, qualify, for instance). But I also recognize that these and other tech companies have made possible a wonderful number of things, including, of course, this very blog (which in its initial incarnation, Rationally Speaking, was hosted by Google, with essays that were for many years written on a MacBook or an iPad, and are still broadcasted via Facebook).

Moreover, I am certainly not an anti-technologist. On the contrary, until recently I was a very early adopter of new technologies. I bought the first iPhone, and then an iPad (and then an iPad Pro, which replaced my laptop), signed up on Facebook very early on, have used Amazon for many years, and have a very very long browser history with Google.

And before you accuse me of naivete, I am perfectly aware that The Four aren’t the only giant tech companies to be wary of (add Twitter, Verizon, Samsung, just for starters), and the list gets far longer when one moves to large corporations in general. Ultimately, I think the only reasonable and effective way to curb corporate power is by legislation, along the model of the famous breakup of Bell back in 1982. As a society, we want innovation, and we certainly want private entities to benefit from their work. But innovation needs competition, not near monopolies, and benefiting from one’s work does not equate creating a very small class of ultra-billionaires who exploit their workers (like Amazon certainly does), including in other countries (like Apple equally certainly does).

But while we are waiting for governments to take action (more likely in Europe than in the US, at the moment — see Galloway’s take here), it doesn’t mean we have to be complicit enablers. I try to practice what in philosophy is called virtue ethics, which means that my first focus is on improving my own character, which in turn requires acting as virtuously (in the Greco-Roman, not the Christian sense) as possible. It follows, it seems to me, that I need to extricate myself as much as possible from The Four, as an initial step.

And that’s where I discovered two interesting things, which are the main objects of this post. First, it is much harder than one might at first imagine. Second, you are unlikely to get a lot of support even from friends and family, who might even exhibit hostility to your intentions. Let me explain.

They are called The Four for a reason. They are everywhere, and next to impossible to avoid, unless you are willing to completely disengage from the Internet. In the postscript, I detail the steps I have taken so far, in case anyone else wishes to try it. You can thank me later for having saved you endless hours of web searching (using DuckDuckGo, of course…).

Apple was actually the easiest to get rid of. Because their ecosystem is so tight and positively discourages any contact with the outside, once you decide to get out of it, you pretty much have to go the whole nine yards. This pained me, because I have been an Apple fan ever since I ditched Microsoft because of the poor quality of their products, back in 2004. But just a couple of weeks later, I hardly miss my iPad and iPhone, and I most certainly don’t miss the Watch, one of the most intrusive gadgets ever made.

Next was Amazon. The big steps here were to stop shopping on their online store (easy, plenty of alternatives), to replace the Kindle with one of several other high quality e-book readers, and to begin to direct readers of my own books to either publishers’ web sites or other e-book stores. of course, the bulk of my collection of books is on Amazon, but I’ll eventually get it back by way of available software that decrypts the files and turns them into the popular epub format. I still watch Amazon videos, because they are good and not available elsewhere. Before you accuse me of hypocrisy, however, keep in mind that the goal is to minimize my footprint on The Four, so to speak, not to eliminate them from my life altogether. It’s an incremental project, not a revolution.

Which brings me to Google. In a sense, I actually increased my use of their products, since now my office suite is the Google one, replacing Apple’s iWorks. But it is a temporary transition dictated by limited time available to search for long term suitable alternatives, and by the need not to disrupt several ongoing collaborative works. And at any rate, I hit Google where it hurts, their web search engine, which produces their advertisement revenues and is of course highly invasive of our privacy. DuckDuckGo does an excellent replacement job.

Finally, Facebook. This was the hardest, again unless I was willing to forgo keeping in touch with (real) friends and family, and also to give up my outreach presence (my “official” philosophy page, my participation to the largest online Stoic community, and a few other things). What I did was to get rid of their obnoxious Messenger app, as well as “unlike” and “unfollow” a crapload of pages that were, of course, generating lots of targeted advertisements. I am now using Facebook with a very small and tightly guarded circle of actual friends and family, as well as for the above mentioned outreach, nothing else.

So the bottom line of the first point is that this exercise showed me very clearly just how dependent our lives have become from The Four. Perhaps this should not have been surprising, but experiencing the full measure of it in such a short period was eye opening. The other thing that was eye opening relates the second point: the comparative lack of support, and occasionally more or less overt hostility, I got from friends and family (and, I’m sure, from some readers, now that I’ve put this out).

When I explained what I was doing and why, a good number of people were puzzled, and began immediately to mount arguments against my enterprise. “It’s useless.” “You won’t succeed” “It’s going to cost you a lot of money and time.” “What do you have against corporations?” “Are you a Luddite?” “Why do you hate America?” Okay, I made up the last one, but the others have been thrown at me fast and furious during the past few weeks.

So I patiently explained: no, I’m not a Luddite; on the contrary, I’ve always been an early user of especially electronic technology. No, it isn’t really that expensive (as I’m sure everyone knows, Apple alternatives in terms of phones and tablets are incredibly cheap by comparison). Yes, it took me some time, but I was helped by others who have similar objections and have done much of the legwork for me, and at any rate, it’s an ethical decision, it would be a bit too easy if it didn’t cost me money or time or effort.

My attitude toward corporations is the one already explained above. I am perfectly aware that if it weren’t Apple it would be someone else, but that’s not an argument about disinvesting from Apple. It’s the social activism equivalent of what in biology is called frequency dependent selection: you go for the rare phenotype, which eventually becomes the dominant, at which point you switch to the new rare, and so on.

In terms of success and utility, it depends on what one’s goal is. I am perfectly aware that Apple, Google and the others are not going to feel the pinch of my decisions. But from a virtue ethical perspective that’s not the objective: I just don’t want to be personally co-responsible for what they are doing. Moreover — and that’s why I’m writing this post and promoting Galloway’s book — if enough others do the same, the damage will be greater and greater, and it might bring about change.

Also, again in terms of success, as I said above my goal was never to completely disengage from The Four, only to distance myself from them. Many years ago I read Peter Singer’s How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, and it changed my life. No, I did not become a utilitarian like Singer, but I was struck by one of the first things he says in that book: don’t try to do everything at once, you will be overwhelmed, get discouraged, and fail. Instead, decide what your ethical priorities are, and then make some small but concrete steps in that direction. I discussed How Are We to Live? at a book club I founded in Knoxville, TN, and my wife at the time and I were talking about it on our way back home. We decided to follow Peter’s advice: we sold our house in the suburbs and moved downtown, near the bus lines and where we could bicycle to work; we also sold one of our two cars. Our life improved as a result, our carbon footprint went down, and we felt good about the decision. The current anti-Four action is along similar lines: I’m doing something, not everything, because I can do the former, but not the latter.

I thought my explanations were reasonable and cogent. One may still disagree, and indeed one may even agree with my take and still not act in a similar fashion, for all sorts of reasons. But my arguments hardly made I dent. Some people seemed not just to disagree with me, but to positively resent my chosen course of action. What was going on?

Then it hit me. It’s the same reaction I got when I stopped eating meat, and that my partner gets every time people find out she is a vegetarian. The same objections are immediately raised: it’s useless; it’s difficult; what’s wrong with the meat industry?; are you an environmental nuts?; do you feel somehow superior to the rest of?; why do you hate America??

It’s the next to the last one that should give you the clue. At least in my judgment, a lot of people who are not vegetarian recognize, at some level, that vegetarians have by far the better argument: no matter how you look at the issue — in terms of animal suffering, environmental degradation, treatment of labor, or even pure and simple self interest when it comes to health — vegetarianism is better. But it’s harder, too. Stakes are delicious; burgers are delightful; and everyone eats them, so it’s easier to just go along with the habit. But when you meet someone who is bucking the trend, and you are dimly aware that she has made the right choice and you haven’t, resentment kicks in. She simply must be mistaken, and you begin to rattle out a number of more or less incoherent “arguments” for why that is “obviously” the case.

I think something similar has been going on with my anti-Four strategy over the past few weeks. A number of my friends and family realize that I’m onto something (and Galloway’s book gives me plenty of well researched ammunitions, as well as the comfort to know that there are others who think and act the same). But it’s too hard, or expensive, or just inconvenient for them to follow suit. So I must be wrong. And once you know someone is wrong then you immediately begin to search for all the flaws in their reasoning, while ignoring the big ones in your own. It’s a well known cognitive fallacy.

Be that as it may. My conscience feels slightly better, in the same way and measure in which similar small decisions (to not eat meat, to try to shop locally, to voluntarily pay carbon footprint offsets when I travel by air, to change bank because my old one was a giant corporate monster, and so forth) have made me feel better. Is this going to change the world? Of course not. But what are you doing to help, right now?


Postscript: Massimo’s (ongoing) anti-Four plan. Each item lists a service or product offered by Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google, followed by a suitable, or at least less objectionable, alternative. All of these have already been implemented, it took about a week to switch completely. Remember, the goal is not perfection, just progress. Readers’ suggestions for further improvements are welcome.

Amazon > myriad alternative online retailers, obviously

Amazon Kindle > Nook, Kobo, Sony, etc.

(My) Amazon books > wherever possible I changed links to direct readers to the publishers themselves instead of the A-store

Amazon Video > Hulu, Netflix, though I still use some Amazon Video because some of their productions are unique and good

Apple’s iPad > any Android tablet (even though Android is Google, each manufacturer uses it differently, and the platform is more open than Apple’s)

Apple’s iPhone > any Android phone, except Google’s own, obviously

Apple’s Watch > back to analogical (and more stylish!)

Apple’s TV > back to simple smart TV native apps

Apple’s Music > Pandora, Spotify, or similar

Apple’s Mail > Aqua Mail (which does not track your search history), or any of a number of alternative third party clients

Apple’s office productivity (iWorks) > Google office, as first step, then independent systems, ideally open source

Apple’s Safari browser > Firefox (which does not track your history), Google Chrome not acceptable

Facebook > un-liked most pages, tightened security, limited who can ask me for “friendship”

Facebook Messenger > eliminated in favor of simple sms, or third-party apps

Google search > DuckDuckGo (which does not track your search history)

Google navigator > this is a tough one (particularly since Apple Maps is neither acceptable for this project, nor good, really), though for instance CityMappers works very well for major cities

Categories: Ethics, Social & Political Philosophy

151 replies

  1. “Massimo is also a moral anti-realist, as you know, as he’s said so here”

    It would be more correct to say that I’m a moral naturalist, as I think morality is a human invention (thus not “real”), but constrained by human nature, desires, and limitations (thus partially factual).

    Liked by 3 people

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