The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Thematic: The Human and the Digital

Who’s Afraid of the Frightful Five?

Monopoly and Culture in the Digital Age

Edward Tenner

Illustration by Chad Crowe; courtesy of the artist.

Trust-busting of the cultural kind.

In October 2017, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages featured an op-ed by Luther Lowe, vice president for public policy at the review site Yelp, bearing the unequivocal headline “It’s Time to Bust the Online Trusts.” The essay, in which Lowe argued that Google, Facebook, and other giants of the Web are abusing their dominance to promote their own services over third-party competitors, was accompanied by a cartoon depicting Google, Facebook, and Twitter as bloated, top-hatted, Gilded Age plutocrats being confronted on the witness stand in a congressional hearing. It recalled a famous 1889 drawing published in Puck, “The Bosses of the Senate,” except that there the “Steel Beam Trust,” “Standard Oil,” and a dozen other corporate giants were the ones glowering at the intimidated legislators.

The Wall Street Journal is normally skeptical of antitrust zeal. But in it and other mainstream publications previously well disposed toward Silicon Valley, concerns about the power of Google (formally Alphabet), Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft— sometimes collectively called the Frightful Five—plus Twitter, Uber, and others, have been growing. (To judge from their purchases of products and services, no equivalent distrust among consumers is yet in the making.) As the online magazine Politico put it in the headline of one of its reports, “Conservatives, Liberals Unite against Silicon Valley.”1Nancy Scola, “Conservatives, Liberals Unite against Silicon Valley,” Politico, September 12, 2017, https:// A scan of notable books on the subject yields Zeynep Tufecki’s Twitter and Tear Gas (a critique of the revolutionary potential of social media), Noam Cohen’s The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, and Franklin Foer’s World without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, its title echoing that of Simon Head’s earlier Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans. All raise suspicions about the digital giants and their effects on our culture. All hold the Big Tech companies and their beguiling products responsible, in varying degrees, for everything from growing incivility and political polarization to a declining faith in facts and truth, from the addictive manipulations of our attention to the secretive exploitation of our user data. If all that were not bad enough, some of these critics suggest, the growing monopolistic power of the largest tech companies threatens to limit the creativity, autonomy, and earnings of artists, writers, and intellectuals, thus diminishing the mind and soul of our larger culture.

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