Alvin and Heidi Toffler, in their 1984 book, “Future Shock,” suggested that if you want to affect the lives of Americans, you would be better on the board of a major corporation rather than in high government office.
Over 35 years later, their prescient thought is close. Just a little modification makes it true. A position on the board of a major corporation would be nice, but for real clout go to the CEO of Apple, Facebook, Amazon or Google. These four horsemen of our times, as author Scott Gallaway in his book “The Four” calls them, would give you enormous influence in the lives of Americans. These four corporations have dynamically changed our lives for good and for bad.
On the good side, these corporation have generated $2.3 trillion to stockholders that has financially helped millions of families. They provided enormous benefit to our society by creating hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs, put supercomputers in our pockets, and brought the internet into developing countries around the world. They have made our lives extraordinary more convenient, and improved communication, information acquisition, and research to a degree unimaginable just 20 years ago.
These gains, however, have come at a cost and it is generally under-reported. In their wake they have fostered a stagnation of the middle class, caused major disruption in many occupations, and contributed to vast financial inequality across the country. And last, but hardly least, they have invaded our privacy on a massive scale.
Perhaps more telling of the power of these companies is a story of information acquisition of data acquired by Target, the national box store. By gathering details of customer’s buying patterns, Target’s technology figured out when a woman was pregnant even before she revealed it to her family and, in some cases, even before she knew it herself. The retailer then bombarded the women with coupons to capture this lucrative market. Unfortunately for Target, many of these coupon solicitations went to homes where the parents became angry over the advertisements and vigorously complained to the company, only to discover shortly thereafter that their daughter was, in fact, pregnant.
The power to know and predict has grown exponentially since this incidence, described in Forbes magazine in 2012. The four tech giants make the Target story look like a minor mosquito bite. Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook know not just our buying patterns, music, friends and food preferences, but where and how often we travel, our sexual habits, hygiene and an extended list that would fill pages. They know things we might not tell our spouse, minister, priest, rabbi or psychologist.
It takes a court ordered search warrant to allow police to enter our homes, but we have openly and willingly given extraordinary access to our personal information to unelected private companies who then sell the same to others to finance their own stock value and increase their power. Because these companies provide such extraordinary convenience and feed our consumer addiction, the public has, to a large degree, overlooked their malaise.
So are these incredibly powerful companies to be viewed as saviors because they brought us technological and convenience miracles, or have they acquired such unprecedented power that we need to be very concerned. The answer is yes to both questions. Enormous benefits, yes. Extraordinary unregulated and unfettered power that should worry us, yes.
Horror movies that predict some fear-provoking monster, microbe or alien invasion are silly. Our lives are more likely to be controlled not by some external calamity, but by a willing enticement. Much like the seduction of a Trojan horse.
Robert Pawlicki, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist and a resident of Savannah.