The new tech oligarchs are terrible for our economy, argues Scott Galloway’s “The Four.” Except …maybe not.
Scott Galloway has to be pleased with the timing of his recent book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Published just three weeks before Facebook and Google’s highly anticipated Congressional testimony, the book feels as timely as a New York Times OpEd calling for more regulatory scrutiny of our tech overlords. (There have been a lot of those lately).
But Galloway is no johnny-come-lately to the genre — he’s been dining out on “the Four” for years. He’s one of a very few consistent critics of tech whose arguments are based on principles of economics and business, rather than cultural (Foer) or social objections (Tufecki). In this his first book, he’s polished his arguments to a brilliant sheen. If you’re already skeptical of these companies’ power, you’ll come away from The Four convinced of the danger they represent to society. But if you’re not, it’s likely you’ll be more angry than won over by his arguments.
But before I get to that contradiction, I want to spend a bit of time praising Galloway’s work. First, The Four is damn fun to read — Galloway trades in outré larded with expletives, and I for one ate it up (then again, I’m the one who wrote this little gem…). Here’s one of my favorite passages, taken from his chapter on Amazon. For context, he’s speaking of Jeff Bezos’ support for Universal Basic Income (a policy Zuckerberg has also embraced):
What’s clear is that we need business leaders who envision, and enact, a future with more jobs — not billionaires who want the government to fund, with taxes they avoid, social programs for people to sit on their couches and watch Netflix all day. Jeff, show some real fucking vision.
Or this one, toward the end of the book:
What is the endgame for this, the greatest concentration of human and financial capital ever assembled? What is their mission? Cure cancer? Eliminate poverty? Explore the universe? No, their goal: to sell another fucking Nissan.
He has absolutely no problem calling out each of the dominant four tech giants — for monopolistic practices, for tax evasion, for rapacious screwing over the little guy, and most deliciously, for intellectual dishonesty, in particular around each company’s core founding mission and narrative. Along the way he demonstrates an exacting study of the Four’s core business models, and evinces serious insights any business leader should possess if they are going to either compete, cooperate, or simply exist within the Four’s sphere of influence. Which, let’s face it, is pretty much the entire economy these days.
Galloway dedicated one chapter each to his chosen companies, then focuses on the shared injuries the companies have forced on the world. He then pulls back and ladders each company to a theory of head, heart, and sex (fun, if debatable), explains how each of the companies might get to a trillion-dollar market cap (Apple looks to be closest, but Galloway thinks Amazon will win that crown). He then strokes his chin around which company might join the Four’s ranks (Alibaba? Airbnb?), offers some career advice for readers in the Four’s realm of influence, and finally ties the Four’s rise to today (and tomorrow’s) politics — a feat that would have been a stretch a year ago, but is utterly realistic today.
Galloway does wallow in a few personally driven anecdotes here and there — it’s clear his time as a professor at a major university (NYU) has impacted his view of the Four (he suggests that Apple or Amazon fund tuition for everyone), and he goes a bit too deep into his own story of a failed attempt at saving the New York Times via private equity. Still and all, his voice and pacing is such that the diversions don’t really get in the way.
So why might I argue that Galloway’s book will fail to convince die hard proponents of the Four to change their minds about the companies they idolize? Because while Galloway does a remarkable job laying out the case for how these companies have come to dominate their respective markets, sowing carnage in the traditional economy along the way, he fails to make a convincing argument for why we should do anything about it. In fact, the book is couched in caveats both fore and aft. “[The Four] make the world a better place,” Galloway notes in his first chapter. And in his last: “It may be futile, or just wrong, to fight them or blanket-label these incredible firms as “bad.” I don’t know.”
Actually, a close reading of The Four leads me to believe he does know, but ultimately chose to pull his final punch. And perhaps that’s the most telling example of the Four’s true power. Regardless, if you consider yourself a student of business and its impact on society, you must read The Four.
Meanwhile, today’s news reflects the themes of Galloway’s book:
After reading his chapter on Amazon, I came away convinced there’s no hope for nearly all legacy retailers (save a few who have focused on customer service and offline/online integration).
New Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi lays out his company’s new set of values, a key first step in turning around Uber’s shattered reputation, which Galloway utterly savages in The Four.
Snap isn’t one of Galloway’s potential new horsemen, but it is the most significant competitor to Facebook’s dominance to come out of the tech industry lately. And if a Chinese company decides to partner with Snap, well, things could change. That Snap had terrible earnings this week was the story most outlets covered, but I find this angle far more interesting. Chinese companies that want to have truly global presence need to have a serious beachhead in the US. Tencent, which already owned a lot of Snap, seems to be getting pretty close to declaring its preference.
Buy Scott Galloway’s book here.
Scott Galloways’ the Four is one of many books we’re reading at NewCo as we prepare for the conversation at the Shift Forum this February. Others include Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, Tim O’Reilly’s WTF, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis, and many others. If you’re interested in Shift Forum’s new Reads program, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter here.