Book Review: “Move Fast and Break Things”

Global headlines this week about the follies of Facebook provided the perfect backdrop for reading Jonathan Taplin’s “Move Fast and Break Things” in which he describes the damage to culture and society caused by Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

Taplin is well placed to tell this story, having begun his multiple careers working with the Band and Bob Dylan before moving on to become a film producer (“Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End of the World”, etc). He joined the University of Southern California faculty in 2004 and is now the Director Emeritus of the Innovation Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The author is therefore well versed in the cultural aspects of his subject; however, early on, he notes that “[w]hat I mistook as only a culture war is an economic war … Monopoly, control of our data, and corporate lobbying are at the heart of this story.”

The Big Three (Facebook, Google/Alphabet, and Amazon) are rentiers of the classic type, with their monopolies of a scarce and valuable resource. Taplin notes that they have been allowed to become so powerful because “since the rise of the Internet, policy makers have acted as if the rules that apply to the rest of the economy do not apply to Internet monopolies.”  He explains this with an in-depth look at how the technology companies have mastered regulatory capture, which “is the process by which regulatory bodies eventually come to be dominated by the very industries they were charged with regulating.”

Mark Zuckerberg/Peter Thiel

Taplin spends some time discussing the Ayn Rand-style libertarianism of technology leaders such as Peter Theil, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerburg; and he provides a useful history of corporate dominance stretching from Hamilton’s victory over Madison and Jefferson through Robert Bork’s free market philosophy and on to the victory of the corporations in the Citizens United case. Noting that “the average citizen has voluntarily (though unknowingly) turned over to Google and Facebook far more personal information than the government will ever have,” he declares that the “tightening monopolization of US industry is rendering America an oligarchy” with profound and disturbing consequences for democracy.

Taplin quotes Robert McChesney: “many of the successful [Internet] giants … were begun by idealists who may have been uncertain whether they really wanted to be old-fashioned capitalists. The system in short order has whipped them into shape.”  And just this week, Roger B. McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “I couldn’t believe these guys I once knew so well had gotten so far off track.”

Move Fast” is larded with interesting vignettes from the music, film, and computer industries, many of which are written with first-hand experience. Taplin is an excellent writer, moving fluently from one part of the story to the next, never getting bogged down in the details but ensuring we have the necessary information.

The book finishes with Taplin’s proposals for how this situation could be reversed. He suggests a local control model such as in Chattanooga which controls broadband as a local utility; or turning telecommunications into a “natural utility” regulated by federal government agencies; or using a co-op model for all content creation. However, sadly, he doesn’t really succeed in convincing us that any of these solutions will happen anytime soon.

Move Fast and Break Things” (2017, Little Brown & Co) is available at the People’s Coop Bookstore on Commercial Drive.

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