The world has changed much more than we can imagine. Wealth is no longer measured in gold or silver, or in cotton and wool of course, and not even in oil and gas. The world’s wealthy are no longer iron and steel magnates, the manufacturers of power generating stations, cars or even fighter jets, or the more recent financial speculation tycoons in international banks and brokerage firms. The nouveau super rich did not come into their money by inheriting their forefathers’ real estate or fruit farms or by developing malls or fast food chains, as wealthy as such people may be.
We are speaking of a totally new brand of rich. Never before in the history of money making had companies attained a net worth of over a trillion dollars. Apart from four: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Their owners top every Fortune 500 or other billionaires list in the world. The figures take one’s breath away. That Jeff Bezos’ net worth increased by $13 billion in a single day to reach $185 billion is mind boggling.
The leap is unprecedented, even by such superrich as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett — perhaps because they are no longer interested, or because they are now more focused on solving human problems, or because the ground rules of the race changed in ways we know little about. So, it is probably best to take a step back to catch our breath a moment, because observing history rush by in times of war and revolution is one thing, and observing it in times of mega change in the main forces of production is another.
It was most revealing when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook from Apple and Alphabet/Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared via teleconference before the US Congress’ antitrust committee on 29 July. In her coverage of the event, Heather Kelly, technology reporter for The Washington Post (whose motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”), opened with, “They came for blood.”
It is not clear whether this refers to the blood of the companies and their owners or that of the congresspersons who summoned the four gods to face a guillotine in the form of a people’s trial. This was not the first time Congress has tackled large corporations and their dealings. Whether the firms in question were weapons or automobile manufacturers or in the oil, pharmaceutical or communications industries, the main objective of the hearings was to break monopoly. Nor was this the first time three of the abovementioned four appeared before Congress. Only Bezos made his first appearance. In all events, the four appeared determined to stay relaxed and, as Kelly pointed out, they even took time for snacks during the intense five-hour session.
Free competition is a cardinal pillar of the capitalist system and one of the keys to its success. Congressional hearings are a mechanism to ensure that antitrust laws are observed and to keep any producers or consumers from monopolising the market, excluding competitors and driving prices up unjustifiably. By keeping the market open to new producers and consumers, competition will thrive and the opportunity for prosperity and happiness will be available to all. That is the principle. But what does this mean to such companies as Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon whose products, earnings and customers number in the billions, globally? Those who watched the five-hour session or read newspaper coverage found that the monopoly issue received relatively little attention.
There was a question, for example, regarding a possible attempt to muscle out Instagram as an independent competitor when Facebook made its bid to buy it. The effect was to make observers wonder whether or not the world would be a happier place if the image and the word were not combined into a single company, or whether Facebook would have been less rich if it developed its own photo-sharing service, or whether mankind benefited thanks to a shortcut that saved some time on the way to human progress. Since the concepts in question pertain to a special world of entrepreneurs, manufacturers, products, consumers and markets in general, the members of the venerable committee tended to deviate into matters they were more familiar with.
The Republicans on the committee doggedly pummelled the testifiers with questions, sometimes laced with menace, concerning their alleged bias against “conservatives”, “conservative thought” and “conservative policies”. The Democrats focussed on a different subject: “hatred” and how to prevent its spread over social networking platforms. Indeed, how could those high-tech firms succeed where institutions more closely in touch with people, such as mosques, churches, clubs, political party mouthpieces, independent newspapers and other platforms of expression could not?
The four CEOs denied accusations of monopoly and attacking conservative thought, and they simultaneously stressed that they were committed to prevent the spread of hatred. Such matters had to do with other markets and platforms, they said. For their part, Amazon wants to build a space station on the moon. Apple wants to produce better and more beneficial products. Alphabet/Google seeks to broaden knowledge of different languages and cultures in the world.
That is where its mission ends and the missions of others, such as politicians, economists, intellectuals and reformers, begin. It all starts with “content”, but nothing ends there, which is why people discuss or lock horns over such questions on Facebook while others use Facebook to share love and affection among other things.
The great human dilemma encapsulated by these four CEOs and their companies is that they represent forces of production that have reached a level of global and universal maturity while more human sized institutions such as Congress lag behind. Moreover, we are left with the possibility that the really “new” is still around the corner and that we can only wait and see what the fourth technological revolution will bring.
When it comes, we will stand baffled and in awe at the ability of those companies to incorporate a totally new IT technology called Quantum Internet, which will use the properties of photons, electrons and other subatomic particles to build computers with greater processing power and with the capacity to share data with no physical contact. Already, Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder who is the latest arrival to the club of tech giants, has launched another new technology. Neuralink, as it is called, features a chip directly wired into the brain and that, according to its inventor, opens horizons for everything from new ways of streaming music to treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Since the last thing we need in this corona age is more shocks to the system, it would be wise to give this matter more thought and attention. What do these technological advances and the issues surrounding them mean to us in the Arab region? What should we do with these technologies? How can we prepare ourselves for their repercussions?
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly