May 16th: How our Tech Companies Rule Our Lives, and Why We Let Them

Apple logoIn a New York Times article last week, Farhad Manjoo posed the question: which of the five biggest tech companies do we depend on most?

We all can agree that technology plays a significant role in our day-to-day lives. But, as Manjoo points out, five companies have a stranglehold on the market for personal computing and information access. Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft each hold a massive slice of the pie, and while others may fit particular niches, those five are responsible for the bulk of our digital experience.

amazon logoIn a fantasy land, constructed by Majoo, a dictator forces you to relinquish all connection to one of those power-five companies at a time. Which ones would you give up first? What order would they fall, leaving you with only one that absolutely can’t live without?

When I first took the “quiz,” I thought Apple would be the one that I couldn’t live without. Apple is responsible for the hardware that I use: I have an iPhone, Macbook, and iPad, so my access to information is wrapped up entirely in the Apple world. Yet, the further I thought about it, nearly all services I use on those devices related back to Google: Google docs, Gmail, Chrome, etc.

FB logoThe answers may differ for each individual, based on the hardware and services used by any of these companies. But the greater value of the article was the subsequent conversation: how can we better understand the influence of these five specific companies on our lives, and how do we better acknowledge how they influence our decisions, both our behavior and our purchases.

What makes these five companies particularly powerful and fascinating is exactly the convergence that I struggled with. We use our Apple phones to buy Amazon products, sending confirmation emails to our Gmail accounts. We post reviews of those products on Facebook, and interact with other users. Maybe we use our Windows computer to accomplish all of this instead.

Microsoft logoTwo-day shipping has become an expectation, not a luxury. The fact that I can send a text on my phone and have it appear also on my computer isn’t magic, it’s synchronization. We expect everyone to be on Facebook, and learn a great deal about the people around us without ever having to meet. We trust Google more than anyone else in our lives.

All of this is said with a morally neutral stance. There is plenty of good and plenty of bad about all five companies: we use them as tools to make our lives easier, and they also own us in ways that can damage our relationship with the “real” world. The more important thing is that we have to be aware of the influence they have on our lives, and to understand what they contribute to our ability to live our lives, and how we can take ownership of our experience of their products to make sure that we are thoughtful, knowledgeable consumers.



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