How Ayn Rand Supposedly Ruined the Internet

Corporations have been criticized for promoting uniformity and groupthink among their managers and executives at least since the 1950s, and probably well before. According to the cliché, executives at Ford or U.S. Steel or Westinghouse golfed, barbequed, and dressed alike. But back then their impact on the broader culture would have been indirect. Their products were a result of their various corporate cultures, and to that extent they molded the larger society. Yet the products were also molded by the larger society by having to face a certain market discipline.

We are told that it’s different today—that we live now in an information economy as much as if not more than a goods economy. The huge companies at the center of this new economy, like Facebook and Google (or Alphabet, as one should say) have flourished for being gatekeepers of this all-important information flow. It has the potential to be far more consequential, therefore, when one of these companies shows itself to be intolerant of certain ideas, as was recently exhibited by Google when it fired a software engineer who dared to dissent, in an internal memo, from the company’s “diversity” orthodoxies.

That the offending memo was no screed but a respectful and relatively thoughtful expression of ideas that would be commonplaces among conservatives of various strands raises concerns about Google’s key role as an honest broker in the “marketplace of ideas” that (until recently at least) would have been seen as one of the preconditions for the successful operation of our liberal democratic politics.

It is reasonable to ask, how can Google search results be relied upon if it cannot tolerate even the slightest ideological dissention within its own ranks? How can it have any idea of fairness, if it is an intellectual monoculture, blind to all alternatives? Perhaps Google, whose 88 percent market share of search and search advertising makes it the biggest media company in the world, has just become too big and too powerful for our good.

Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy suggests, although not exactly intentionally, how conservatives may be in a particularly good position to weigh in on this question. Taplin is currently director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, which academic position he achieved through a career as a film producer, a tour manager for the likes of Bob Dylan, and a digital media pioneer.  His book raises some very important questions about where the information economy is going, although it is handicapped by some of its Progressive assumptions when trying to answer those questions.

Taplin’s Progressivism does not always serve him well on particular points. Thomas Jefferson was not the eminence grise behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as he seems to believe. He also brings forward the bogeymen of contemporary Progressivism, like the Koch brothers, even when, as he acknowledges, “The reader may wonder what an exploration of the Koch brothers has to do with our larger story.” The reason he discusses them is not exactly compelling (namely the externalities created by the extraction industries, to which he likens data miners Google and Facebook). Likewise, his criticism of Peter Thiel rises to a hysterical pitch when he compares Thiel’s initially secret funding of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker.com to anonymous threats of death and sexual violence against Zoe Quinn of Gamergate fame.

The book is also weakened by a (perhaps unwitting) kind of conservatism: nostalgia. Taplin constantly hearkens back to how much better things were in the days when he was involved in the music and film industries. There is some justice, surely, to his account of the difficult economic conditions recording artists now face in a world of digitized music, but his concern for the well being of the past and present elite in the recording industry—that is to say, the tiny fraction of musicians who get contracts with major labels and reap large rewards—tends to obscure what he occasionally acknowledges, and in fact in principle approves: the democratizing effect of Internet technology for music-makers and, perhaps to a lesser extent, filmmakers. He longs for the days when, as he sees it, artists were genuinely appreciated for their role as social critics and transmitters and developers of culture—which appreciation was apparently not to be found in the Renaissance, or the Romantic era from which his own view seems to arise, so much as in the halcyon 1960s.

His favoring of that era makes it possible for Taplin to be both nostalgic and Progressive. His vision of what the Internet should have been owes much to the democratic communitarianism of a coalition of hippie intellectual and tech guy forebearers such as Stewart Brand and Don Engelbart. They wanted to use the information technologies then being developed (funded largely by the government, ironically enough) to support their liberationist vision, to bring down the old hierarchies and allow people freedom to reconstitute their collective lives as they thought fit.

In the event, as Taplin tells the story, that vision was defeated by the antidemocratic, pro-monopoly libertarianism of the likes of Peter Thiel. In a great battle for the soul of the Internet between the profit, efficiency, and hard libertarianism of Ayn Rand, on the one hand, and the “If it feels good, do it” libertarianism of the hippie coalition, the hippie side lost. The author’s bitterness on this point reflects, to an extent he may not be aware of, the bitterness of a family feud between libertarian variants.

The victory of the Randians was abetted by a change in law and policy with respect to monopolies. Here the late Antonin Scalia is Taplin’s whipping boy. Justice Scalia was responsible for a view of monopoly that was only interested in asking whether consumers were harmed financially by its existence. As the services provided by Google and Facebook are free, and given that Amazon offers highly competitive pricing, there is, on this understanding, not going to be any interest (among Republicans or Democrats) in breaking them up or regulating them stringently.

Taplin acknowledges the “network effect” that has contributed to these success stories—the reality that the more people use the services of these tech giants the more they become useful to more people. That this situation arguably makes Facebook or Google something like natural monopolies may be why his own recommendations for change stop short of suggesting the kind of classic breakup of monopolies along the lines of Standard Oil or AT&T.

He points out that these services only seem free. We pay for them by making our personal data available to these tech giants, and it is the use and sale of that data, he argues, that drive the profits for Google and Facebook. This commoditization of personal information is a large part of what Taplin has in mind when he talks about the subversion of American culture and democracy. He hearkens back to a time when elite directors and producers had their films reviewed by elite movie reviewers in a mutually reinforcing artistic process that served as a source of ongoing social commentary on the ills of American society, serving in its own way as a kind of check on our politics and economics. So too in the music industry, where elite labels gave space to their elite artists to develop their artistic ideas and ideals. (Needless to say, he sees no irony in this privileged criticism of American privilege.)

Today, the producers of popular culture do an end-run around these institutions. When people can listen to precisely the music they want when they want to, and knowledge of what they are listening to can be had with unprecedented precision, the role of the old-style gatekeepers on the production side, or on the side of tastemaker DJs and music reviewers, is vastly diminished. More people than ever before can be heard, but making a living from one’s art is harder than ever. Meanwhile, the new elite becomes those who are the collectors and disseminators of this all-important “big data.” As a result, Taplin says, elite music and film production is driven by standardizing formulas pointing the money guys to what will be big box office.

As is clear from the above, Taplin does not object to an elite per se (like his idol Jefferson, “the man of the people,” although he does not seem to appreciate that). But our tech wizards are the wrong elite. Taplin deserves a sympathetic reading on this point. There is surely something to be said for artists as “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” whatever the ironies may be in an effort to grant to popular culture the role once reserved for high culture.

As we are finding out, however, the question of how low the arts can sink is still open, so it is not simply quixotic to try to assert some new “high” in the face of otherwise constantly falling expectations. Furthermore, Dylan or Louis Armstrong or Levon Helm are not the only artists Taplin admires. In one of the first of many statements about how artists have “pointed out the injustices of society” and are “in the vanguard of progress,” he cites as examples Galileo, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Abraham Lincoln. His categories may be confused, but his heart could be in the right place.

Of course, the Brins, Bezoses, Zuckerbergs and Thiels of the world think that they are in the vanguard of progress, and likewise working hard to address the ills of American society. That they do not see precisely the same ills as Taplin does not mean that we have broken out of a family quarrel, as I said, among the libertarians. Which is a shame, because from the title of his book onward, Taplin touches on a key issue that might have jump-started a far more serious discussion had he followed it through.

For what makes the tech elite unsuitable as an elite is that at some level all they want is “disruption.” Taplin draws the title of his book from a wonderfully telling statement by Mark Zuckerberg: “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough.” Even if, as Taplin claims, the tech overlords sincerely believe that monopoly is the highest and best form of capitalism, even if they seek to use the system to protect their positions as incumbents, the legitimacy of their position as they present it depends on two things: 1) that they gained their present ascendency by brilliant “creative destruction” and 2) that they will be able to identify and support the next big disruptive thing, be it travel via tube, or indefinite life extension, or commercial space travel, or direct connections between our brains and computers (to name some of the ideas they fund).

Taplin perceives, at the deepest point in his book, that when disruption becomes the elite’s legitimating principle it is not just inimical to a particular form of culture but in effect makes culture as such impossible. Culture, to perpetuate itself, requires not just change but also preservation. He writes: “But a culture and its art are not like an old flip phone—to be thrown in the trash as soon as it has be ‘disrupted’ by The Next Big Thing.” In a lovely chapter recounting some of his personal history and the history of some of the musicians he admires, he writes how “Sustainable cultures are made by generations of artists who ply their trade. We value the artists who came before us.” Cultures change, of course, but each generation sustains what is given even as it builds on it.

I wish the author had paid more attention to distinguishing the conservative creativity he admires from the disruption that rightly concerns him. Too many artists today do not have the outlook of Taplin’s musicians, who freely acknowledged and cherished their influences. Rather, they believe, along with the tech disruptors, that to be bound by any convention from the past inhibits their artistic creativity and represents the intrusion into their work of oppressive social or political norms. If Elon Musk really thought, as his tweets indicated, that a couple of conversations with people in Washington were enough to permit his building a Hyperloop system along the Northeast Corridor, it could be because, as a disruptor, he sees himself as above it all, dismissive of the minutiae of regulation in the way that a disruptive Andres Serrano believed himself to be above the conventions of religious art.

Because he has not given this crucial distinction enough thought, Taplin ends his book with a proposal (among other measures) to force Google to make its patents public property as a means of reducing its monopoly power. A large part of his defense of this idea is that Google actually stifles creativity, by which he seems to mean that it stifles the possibility of its own disruption. To that extent, his proposal risks making the profound problem he has identified worse. Likewise, his hopes for a more decentralized, community-based version of the web, as attractive as it may be on its own terms, are at least in tension with that part of “culture” that implies a certain commonality.

Change comes easy today; we are always supposed to be “moving forward.” That means, given our relatively normless condition, that progress comes easy, for progress without norms is really simply change. Taplin sees that our culture exhibits “a dark tone of nihilism”; he is open to the argument of (neo-con!) Daniel Bell that capitalism could create a culture that undermines itself.  But his effort to articulate some part of a “strategy of resistance” to the “techno-determinism” vision of progress is repeatedly undermined by the fact that his basic frame of reference for opposing it is a nostalgic vision of 1960s Progressivism.

Conservatives are likely to see more clearly than he that his arguments against the new world rising have not yet fully assimilated the implications of a vision of what it means to be human that he finds (and admires) in Epicurus, or in the Benedictine contemplative life, or in the liberal arts. He has not yet delved deeply enough into progress and return; change and conservation. The result is a thought-provoking book that could have been—but isn’t, quite—a thoughtful book.