I recently received a shipment of wine from a low-yield vineyard in Napa Valley. I ordered the shipment at the winery and used my American Express card for payment. On the day that I received my wine I began seeing banner ads across my media feeds promoting trips to Napa and wine from that very vineyard. How did the advertisers know? Did the vineyard sell me? Did Amex sell me? Did the postal service sell me?
Welcome to the mysteries of the networked world. We have all become readily discoverable thanks to a plethora of innovations. Siri and Alexa eavesdrop on our conversations, internet bots track our key strokes, and facial recognition software monitors our urban movements. Soon, geolocation and the Internet of Things will incessantly “ping” us with coupons, maintenance requests, upgrade alerts, and alternate routes. Instagram likes and Snapchat streaks deliver addictive dopamine-like highs for users. Technological innovation hasn’t only compromised our privacy, it may be compromising our sanity. In a world of hyper technological innovation, the next frontier may not be even more sophisticated marketing intrusions, but the adoption and application of digital ethics.
Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple have a combined market value of $3.3 trillion, a number larger than all but four economies on the planet (USA, China, Japan, Germany). Google drives 89 percent of all internet search. Facebook facilitates 77 percent of social media traffic. Apple harvests 91 percent of all smartphone profits, and Amazon processes more than 50 percent of online retail sales. The U.S. government has a history of breaking up companies with outsized market share and influence — but not these companies. Why? Because these companies use their monopoly power to drive prices down, not up. As such, there isn’t a clear case that the size of these companies disadvantages consumers. Additionally, these companies service a global marketplace that lacks a global regulator. The larger they get, the more innovative they become, the more essential they become to consumers and therefore, the more powerful. In the past, small meant innovative. In the present, large means innovative and, as a consequence, start-up rates and public listing activity have waned. In fact, over the last 20 years, the number of publically listed companies in the United States has declined nearly 50 percent. In truth, these Big Tech hegemons are monopolies cornering innovation, information, and online influence. Also in truth, monopolies tend to misbehave.
Throughout history, scale invites corruption and repudiation. Big Tobacco and Big Oil overreaches led to consumption shifts toward healthier lifestyles and lower carbon emissions. Likewise, privacy concerns, information manipulation, and suspicious A.I. intrusions could decrease Big Tech utilization. According to USA Today, 52 percent of those surveyed believed that Big Tech companies negatively influence marketplaces. Should that number escalate further, “know thy vendor” may increasingly impact purchase decisions leading to more local and less digital consumption. Once mistrust infects a corporation or industry, fickle buyers flee. For example, Facebook lost $150 billion in market cap on a single day on investor concerns that users will activate their privacy settings. Facebook makes $22 a user selling your information to advertisers. You are Big Tech’s product. As online user awareness and vigilance grow, more commerce localization and more information privatization will force higher levels of accountability from these behemoths. Consumers must demand that ethics accompany innovation.
Bottom Line: Technological disruption, once the handicraft of smaller firms, has shifted upstream to the largest and most profitable firms. While innovation carries a positive connotation, not all innovators are benevolent. More and more intrusive marketing practices, distorted information feeds, and Pavlovian stimuli have consumers second-guessing the intentions of Big Tech. Marketplace relationships long on innovation and short on trust are ripe for reappraisal and rejection. In the absence of a global regulatory authority, consumers must fill the regulatory void by holding innovators accountable.