By Jonathan Taplin
Google. Amazon. Facebook. The modern world is defined by vast digital monopolies turning ever-larger profits. Those of us who consume the content that feeds them are farmed for the purposes of being sold ever more products and advertising. Those that create the content – the artists, writers and musicians – are finding they can no longer survive in this unforgiving economic landscape.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
In Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin offers a succinct and powerful history of how online life began to be shaped around the values of the entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel and Larry Page who founded these all-powerful companies. Their unprecedented growth came at the heavy cost of tolerating piracy of books, music and film, while at the same time promoting opaque business practices and subordinating the privacy of individual users to create the surveillance marketing monoculture in which we now live.
It is the story of a massive reallocation of revenue in which $50 billion a year has moved from the creators and owners of content to the monopoly platforms. With this reallocation of money comes a shift in power. Google, Facebook and Amazon now enjoy political power on par with Big Oil and Big Pharma, which in part explains how such a tremendous shift in revenues from creators to platforms could have been achieved and why it has gone unchallenged for so long.
And if you think that’s got nothing to do with you, their next move is to come after your jobs.
Move Fast and Break Things is a call to arms, to say that is enough is enough and to demand that we do everything in our power to create a different future.
Brad Auerbach on Forbes wrote:
"This exchange sums up the argument of Taplin’s new book: the titans of the digital age frequently behave like spoiled and ignorant brats with far, far more money than sense; and their victims include many of the artists who create things of real value and who can no longer earn a living from doing so. Taplin’s sense of outrage is palpable and his case is often compelling. Unfortunately, the two parts of the argument don’t really hang together. The first claim is hard to dispute – Silicon Valley does increasingly resemble some kind of nightmarish children’s playground, populated by overgrown babies with no idea of the consequences of their actions – but the evidence he marshals is mainly second hand, drawn from newspaper commentary and some well-known histories of the digital revolution. As a result, it feels a little overfamiliar. The more personal and original sections of the book concern his own experiences in the music and film industries. He harks back to the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, when people like him and his friends could make their music and movies on their own terms and still get paid for it. The trouble is, this sounds a lot like special pleading. He would say that, wouldn’t he? [...] He leans too heavily on the assumption that the 1960s and 70s represented an artistic golden age whose like we will never see again. Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde aren’t quite enough to build a case like that. Any era will value its own products, and that will be especially true of the people who helped make them. [...] The real story is not what’s happening in the transfers between the people in the middle and at the bottom of the scale, but what’s happening at the top. This is now a winner-takes-all market, and it extends far beyond the culture industries. Indeed, making the case on behalf of creative artists versus the brainless YouTube monopolists – The Big Short and Spotlight versus PewDiePie – looks like a sideshow. This isn’t about art; it’s about money and power."
Richard R. John on Business History Review wrote:
"The tension between creators and technology goes back to the gramophone and zoetrope, but Taplin does a fine job of elucidating the massive implications underway today. Much ink has been spilled (digitally or otherwise) over the last few decades about the chasm between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, but much of it has been an overly simplistic discussion of differing perspectives. Instead, Taplin provides a solid qualitative and quantitative analysis supporting his position."
"Move Fast and Break Things is a fast-paced, pointed, and timely critique of Facebook, Google, and Amazon by Jonathan Taplin, the recently retired director of the Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. Today’s online giants, in Taplin’s view, threaten not only the livelihood of countless content creators—musicians,filmmakers, journalists, and writers—but also the very foundations of democracy. Taplin initially intended to write about the cultural divide between the producers and distributors of music, movies, news, and books.Having begun his research, he shifted his focus to the economic 'war' between monopoly and competition (p. 5). [...] Like many trade books intended for a broad popular audience, Taplin’s is organized around a relatively small cast of heroes and villains who stand in for large-scale trends. The libertarian political activists Charles and David Koch receive prominent attention, as does KimDotcom, the founder of the illicit music-sharing site Megaupload. Among Taplin’s heroes is digital pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. [...] To explain what went wrong, Taplin fingers a 'libertarian counterinsurgency' masterminded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel and legal theorist Robert Bork (p. 67). Thiel, an early Facebook investor, astutely recognized that the anti-regulatory 'free-market gospel' provided the promoters of digital start-ups with the necessary ideological fig leaf to neutralize the 'unthinking demos' (Thiel’s phrase), while enabling their ventures to rapidly attain levels of economic concentration that would otherwise have prompted unwelcome regulatory scrutiny (p. 125). [...] The crux of Taplin’s critique is the danger posed by the 'techno-determinism' of libertarian high-tech promoters who favor capitalism over democracy and look to technology to solve the problems that they believe that politics have caused. To check the power of Facebook,Google, and Amazon—corporations that, by historical standards, have in fact attained extraordinarily high levels of economic concentration—he documents the costs of digital innovation and offers up a menu of antimonopoly policy options [...] Move Fast and Break Things reads more like a journalistic exposé than an academic monograph and, like most writing in this genre, some-times oversimplifies to make a point. In particular, Taplin proposes an origin myth for today’s commercial digital economy that is excessively one-dimensional while advancing several questionable claims about the U.S. political economy [...] Yet it is not as a historical primer that its principal value is to be found. Rather, it is a provocative think piece that belongs on the small but growing shelf of insider accounts that diagnose endemic problems with some of today’s most powerful corporations. Whether or not Taplin has the right answers, his questions are apt, and all historians interested in the relationship of business, technology, and politics should applaud his attempt to provide us with a 'moral framework' for the U.S. political economy in the digital age (p. 31)."
Lecture by Taplin on Move Fast and Break Things
A lecture by Taplin at the John Adams Institute in the Netherlands in February 2018:
- "If you think that disruption is the highest calling – you know, move fast and break things – you have to rethink things" - interview with Taplin at the website of the John Adams Institute (February 2018)
- "A Critical Review of Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things" - unpublished working paper by Skye Radcliffe Grayson at ResearchGate (October 2017)
Table of Contents of Move Fast and Break Things
- The Great Disruption
- Levon's Story
- Tech's Counterculture Roots
- The Libertarian Counterinsurgency
- Digital Destruction
- Monopoly in the Digital Age
- Google's Regulatory Capture
- The Social Media Revolution
- Pirates of the Internet
- Libertarians and the 1 Percent
- What It Means to Be human
- The Digital Renaissance
About Jonathan Taplin
Jonathan Taplin is the Director Emeritus of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, and a former tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band, as well as a film producer for Martin Scorsese. An expert in digital media entertainment, Taplin is a member of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and sits on the California Broadband Taskforce and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Council on Technology and Innovation.