Saturday, November 30, 2019

Book Review: 'Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley' by Rob Larson

Tech takes a severe beating in Rob Larson’s Bit Tyrants. He wants to take readers “behind its playful, cutesy nerd fa├žade.” First up, the big five companies, followed by major issues that affect them all. It’s a full frontal attack on pretty much everything there is to hate about Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, which each get their own chapter. And there’s lots to hate.

The common factor at the bottom of all those companies seems to be totally rotten founders. From Zuckerberg back to Gates, they are tyrants, verbally whiplashing underlings, paying poorly (Facebook “earns” nearly $700,000 of pure profit per employee) while expecting excruciatingly long hours (“death marches”) at no additional pay. They are arrogant, loud, abusive, selfish, greedy, ignorant, wrong and are constantly skating the edge of legality. They take on mainly part-timers to avoid paying benefits, and use contractors and slave labor overseas to produce their beautiful appliances. It is capitalism at its finest.

At the other end, they’ve all benefited from network effects. The more people use the services, the more important the services become. So it’s not so much their own brilliance as the leverage that the internet offered all of them. Also, government giving them unregulated total freedom, and the companies leveraging all the infrastructure and common goods of the USA gave them an incomparable boost. They expanded all over the world and avoided paying taxes. And they’ve never looked back.

Well, Jeff Bezos looked back. Incredibly, the world’s richest man has claimed to have built everything himself, without acknowledging the public services like roads for example, to deliver all those Amazon smiley boxes. Larson says he doesn’t pass the laugh test on that. Bezos is the kind of beneficent boss who cut off all Amazon affiliates rather than collect sales taxes for the states because affiliates gave it nexus all over the country. Now he is busy crippling product reviews, the very thing that gave Amazon the killer advantage over brick and mortar stores. Today, you have to have purchased a product at full price and spent at least $50 in the past 12 months in order to post a review that won’t be put last. If you haven’t spent enough, you can’t even vote. Your friend, Jeff.

As for network effects, Larson quotes W. Bryan Arthur: “Laissez-faire gives no guarantee that the ‘superior’ technology will be the one that survives.” To which Larson adds: “These are painful admissions from economists, who usually admit to few flaws in the marketplace.” Steve Jobs, for his part, claimed all the innovations developed by government grants at military research labs were Apple’s own invention. Things like touchscreens, lithium batteries, micro hard drives and the mouse. These guys bashed government all the way to the bank.

As comprehensive as Bit Tyrants seems to be, Larson missed a huge factor – planned obsolescence, in which companies like Apple and Microsoft make your purchases worthless and less functional, nudging you to purchase new. And it’s not just planned obsolescence but forced obsolescence, for those who think they can live with less than perfect systems, the Apples and Microsofts of the world can make them shut down completely.

Let there be no doubt, this is not fair reporting. Larson comes out swinging and keeps swinging throughout the book. It often seems like he has a personal chip on his shoulder. But Larson is a left-leaning economist, and one should expect some level of this kind of prejudice from him. It’s labor vs management, the public good vs shareholder rights, overseas hoarding vs infrastructure needs at home.

But he takes it way too far. He uses phrases like “bullying douchebag CEOs.” He drops in descriptors like sleazy and jerk-off (and worse, but we needn’t go there). I don’t know what Larson thinks he has accomplished with this dramatic name-calling. Perhaps it’s just the Trump effect, but it will not endear him or his book to researchers or teachers, let alone lawyers who might otherwise cite it in their work. He must believe there is some sort of audience that will glom onto his book because of his “colorful” descriptions.

The book concludes very positively with organizing tactics for the public to take back what amounts to ownership from these companies. For example, getting the rights to their own data, outlawing cookies that follow them all over the internet, and other privacy-invading techniques these companies profit from – at users’ expense. None of them are corporate rights.

He points out that Mark Zuckerburg bought and tore down four large houses around his own, just to ensure his own privacy. This is of course laughable when his whole company is based on leveraging other people’s personal activities, from where they’re standing to what they’ve looked at, who they’re meeting up with, and what they’re purchasing at every moment of their lives.

One interesting tactic that would work is a users strike. If everyone stayed off say Facebook for one month, none of the ads would be seen, causing terrific revenue loss to the company and mistrust from its real customers – the advertisers. Compare this to the paltry billion dollar fines it pays out of its tens of billions in profits – just the cost of doing business, which it goes right back to. A users strike is probably in Facebook’s future.

So Bit Tyrants has its value, but is lessened by its pointlessly abusive language.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. He is the author of The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviewsLike what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.