Joshua Keel

Tilting at Big Tech

October 20, 2019

The web is not what it used to be. Millennial that I am, I remember the time just before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket. When pagers were still a thing.

Remember when Xanga and MySpace were hot, and people made websites on GeoCities? As a teenager, I fell in love with the Internet. I rode my bike to the library to download shareware PC games on floppy disks, using Netscape Navigator.

I hand-coded websites to learn HTML. I was a web citizen. Now I feel more like a toy in the hands of companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook.

Those companies alone basically rule the Internet. The diversity and individuality of the past has been largely replaced by Big Tech.

And because many services from these companies are free—Google Maps, Google Docs, the ability to connect with your “friends” on Facebook—they have to make money elsewhere.

How do they make that money? With data—your data. You are their product. They collect massive amounts of data on all of us, and turn that information into a targeted ad machine designed to manipulate our behavior.

It’s one thing to run an ad, say, on TV. It’s quite another to be able to target Republican women who work in retail and believe in Jesus. Foreign governments have made use of this targeting, as have presidential candidates and corporations.

We need to think long and hard about whether this is the Internet we all want. Do we want to give up our privacy and autonomy (in other words, the ability to be free from commercial interests manipulating us) for a free trinket?

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google aren’t free. You just don’t understand how you’re being charged. It’s hidden from view. It’s not discussed.

So I’ve been rethinking my relationship with Big Tech. For instance, would I rather support Amazon, or my local independent bookstore? Amazon might be cheaper, but what are the externalities, the invisible costs, of doing business exclusively with them?

What is Amazon doing to booksellers and authors? Surely they’ve done some amazing things for books, and many authors make their livelihood primarily through sales on Amazon. But maybe it’s time to take some of their power back.

I listened to “Nevermore, Amazon” this week, a thought-provoking episode of the Rework podcast about one little bookstore’s fight back against Amazon’s towering dominance.

The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, has a feisty Twitter presence. The owner, Danny Caine, has taken to Twitter to share about the real economics of the independent bookstore.

He talks about how Amazon can afford to sell books practically at cost, because their businesses are so wide and bring in so much income that books can be a loss leader. It’s hard for the little guy to compete on price alone. If they matched Amazon’s prices, they wouldn’t be in business.

Yet what kind of world would it be if one company was the only outlet through which ideas (in the form of books) could be gotten? That’s right out of a dystopian YA novel if you ask me.

So I’m taking the first step. Today I called my local indie book shop, Quail Ridge Books here in Raleigh, and asked if they had a particular book in stock. Ginger answered the phone and said that although it wasn’t on the shelf, it could arrive from their warehouse in 1-2 business days.

I can pick it up in-store, where I will interact with a real person at the cash register. I get to support my community’s economic growth. And I participate in a physical space, a place where ideas are loved and debated, where book clubs, writing workshops and other events are happening each day.

It’s my little way of rebelling against our corporate overlords. They won’t notice, but for me, it brings a sense of peace and hopefulness for our collective future.

What do you think about the role massive tech companies play in your life? Are they good or bad for us? Have you taken any steps to distance yourself from their influence? Let me know your thoughts.