Monday, November 13, 2017

Move Fast and Break Things

Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin

As I continue reading and thinking about digital technology, this book came across my radar. The title is coined from a comment by Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough”. With the subtitle “How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” this book is clearly designed to grab your attention.

Jonathan Taplin worked in the music industry as tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band, and was also a film producer for Martin Scorsese and others. He saw first-hand what free streaming and piracy did to destroy a music artist’s ability to earn money from their craft; and what the digitisation of the film industry has done for creativity and originality.

He notes the five largest firms in the firms in the world are now: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. He traces the beginnings of the Internet which was founded on much more co-operative and creative principles that we see at work today. He looks at the libertarian value and belief systems of the men who founded Amazon, Google and Facebook and how their views shaped their company model and practice. Much of it seems to be based around the principles of “I can do it, so I will” and “Who will stop me?”

He spends time on the power of the digital monopolies, the lack of any real regulation to guide or limit their power, and the how the quality of accurate news had been eroded. He highlights the ongoing danger of non-stop data mining, where the only real benefit is for advertisers whose targets become more and more specified.

There is an element of conspiracy theory to it, but much of it also rings true; and really, it certainly feels like these digital tech companies are working in conspiracy. Amazon corners the market on book sales, pushing actual stores out of business and threatening publishers who won’t fall into line. Facebook algorithms are changing the way we view news, and ensuring we are surrounded by a group of similarly minded, homogenous ‘friends’ in our feeds. Google knows where you are almost at any time of the day, can read all your mail, tracks the places you go and what you search for and buy online. These companies have massive power in terms of market share, income, and data; and there are very little checks and balances to ensure this power is used carefully and wisely. Google’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” is a nice marketing ploy, but really, are Google the ones to judge what is evil? And at what point does the end product justify the means to how you got there?

As I read this book the phrase kept coming to mind (partially attributed to Lord Acton) “Power corrupts, but absolutely power corrupts absolutely”.

Taplin doesn’t leave you hanging at the end, he has the beginnings of a proposal for a way forward. He considers what it means to be human, and that part of that includes the sense of community. He comments on the starkness of the contrast between a shooter who killed nine parishioners of a church: “When you think that the families of the slain churchgoers were able to forgive the shooter, you can only marvel at the power of their faith. Never was the difference between between community cooperation and individual separation more starkly outlined. I’m not sure my faith would afford me that amount of grace in the face of such evil, but I am awed to see it exist in the hateful political climate we inhabit.”

After being on a Benedictine monk retreat, he was challenged that “I am not Catholic, yet I find the monks’ prescriptions to be helpful [these include prayer, work, study, hospitality and renewal], a model of how I want to live in the world. The idea of an examined life is missing in our current digital rush.” These are the only comments that Taplin makes in the whole book that have any hint at faith or belief yet he has identified something. We know our lives will be examined, and we should be examining them before the Creator of the world. What will He conclude regarding our digital lives?

He concludes that part of being human is “we need a life narrative in which we take pride in being good at a specific task, and we value the experiences we have lived through”. He thinks art is one of the ways that lays the ground for the internal condition, for moral behaviour. I agree in part. There will have been artworks, pieces of music, books and other creative expressions that have moved and challenged each of us. For those of us who are believers, the creative expressions of others can drive us closer to God. I think of certain hymns, books, and artworks that make me realise anew the mercy and grace of God and the creative power he has given his people.

Taplin finishes by proposing ways the internet could change (with legislation and regulation) to allow for proper use of artists’ work where they are paid fairly. He notes that there are many things that the digital world cannot do: “When I ask myself what it means to be human, I think that having empathy and the ability to tell stories rank high, and I am not worried that these skills will be replaced by A.I. A great artist’s ability to inspire people – especially to compel them to think and act – lies at the heart of political and cultural change. It really is the reason we tell ourselves stories”.

Taplin has included a lot of information, background and explanation throughout, and those with knowledge of economics may get a lot more out of it than I did; but it is certainly is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

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