Monday, May 29, 2017

The Rise Of The Social Engineers

 

Slowly, insidiously, our world changes without our noticing. A couple of shops on the hight street shut, but we don't put it down to Amazon; the local newspaper goes online only, but we don't blame Google; your mate's band, who once thought they could make it, go back to day jobs, and you don't blame YouTube or Apple; black cabs are hard to find, but we don't blame Uber.


Of course, engineering change in a way that society, and especially governments and regulators do not notice is not new. Dale Carnegie was his era's equivalent to Mark Zuckerberg, but without the 


The canal owners lost all their money when the railway moguls came along, and they, in turn, lost their shirts when roads were built. And the taxi drivers complaining about Uber will eventually lose their profession to self-driving cars, not to cheaper alternatives. It's all about being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage.


In Silicon Valley they like to invest in what they call disruption. This generally uses a lot of investors' money to subsidise a new business model in the hope that it will become a monopoly.


By any definition of the term, Google has a monopoly on search and text advertising in the UK; Facebook has a monopoly on the internet in many parts of Africa. But Comcast has a monopoly on TV and broadband over vast swathes of the US, as does BT in many parts of the rural UK. Uber, JustEat/Hungry House and many others have prominent positions in their vertical markets. We have become a world where monopolies are, once more, acceptable to those we vote to serve us, and this bothers me tremendously.


The problem is not just commercial. All the current regulation and revenue generation is based on those old models - rates, corporation tax, sales tax, trade agreements are not fit for multinationals with monopolies, offshore bases and far cleverer lawyers and accountants than any government bureaucracy.


At least Trump has proposed tax reform to encourage Big Internet to repatriate their vast wealth in a way that will benefit the US. In the UK during recent political campaigning for national elections, none of the political parties have come up with even a vague plan that addresses the real issues faced by the UK economy, Brexit or not: the cost to the UK economy of its recent boom has been tens of billions of pounds that could have been spent on poverty, health and protecting its citizens which have gone into the pockets of some of the world's wealthiest people, making them even wealthier and more powerful still.


Meanwhile, Big Internet is all about a cozy public image and subtly engineering social change for their own benefit, much as the British East India Company and Cecil Rhodes once did. Mark Zuckerberg has built a vast personal fortune by stealing your data, broadcasting snuff movies and destroying small businesses. We are living in a new era of robber barons and corporate states, outside normal laws and bigger than nations (Apple is bigger than New Zealand by revenue v GDP).


And at the same time politicians have made their constituents obsess over irrelevant political alliances and trivial trade agreements whilst kowtowing to Big Internet to a degree that beggars belief (it was difficult to tell the difference between Google senior management and David Cameron's main advisors at one point in the UK).


Meantime, the Big Internet juggernaut rolls on, consuming ever greater parts of our lives, our futures and possibly our souls. The next time you are poor, just start wondering why Google, Facebook et al are not paying you for your data, and are not paying for the societies they are destroying so that they can replace them with their own social networks.