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The Case Against Big Tech, Now at Your Local Bookstore (If You Still Have One)

The political winds in Silicon Valley are shifting. As Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer wrote on Friday, a spate of critical essays and surprising revelations have recently framed the big tech companies as all-powerful, unaccountable and primed for greater antitrust scrutiny.

But if you want to get fully up to speed on the case against Big Tech, there are two new books you should familiarize yourself with: World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by former New Republic editor Franklin Foer, and The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, by Scott Galloway, a business professor at New York University. Both are well-argued and accessible jeremiads against the monolithic impact of the tech giants, though neither definitively lands the case that there is anything that can realistically be done about them.

Foer’s book, which came out last week, is seasoned with the bitterness of personal experience. His tenure at the New Republic was undone by a fractious partnership with the magazine's former owner, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who stands in for Silicon Valley and its all-consuming obsession with eyeballs and virality.

When he’s not recollecting their doomed partnership, Foer rails against Google, Amazon and Facebook for their “theological sense of conviction” that they are making the world a better place at the same time that they’ve destroyed the economics of authorship and media. Their pursuit of clicks, Foer writes, has “created a world where the old boundaries between fact and falsehood have eroded, where misinformation spreads virally.” It’s hard to argue with that.

There’s a lot to contemplate in Foer’s book, though it doesn’t quite work as a serious argument in favor of regulating what he calls “data-driven monopolies.” (I counted one practical suggestion: the creation of a so-called data-protection authority to review mergers and defend the free flow of information.) He also goes a bit overboard, I think, in claiming that tech companies create so much noise and distraction that they are destroying “something precious, which is the possibility of contemplation.”

The Four, by Scott Galloway, is out early next month and also condemns Big Tech, though its critical heart is disguised by the subtitle, which promises more of a conventional business book. Galloway takes the reader through a refreshingly clear-eyed look at the nature of dominance at Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google. He is interested in how these companies become more valuable with use instead of less (for contrast, think about shopping at a crowded Walmart store), how they benefit from low cost of capital and the implications for things like voice control (or “zero-click ordering”), which could further strengthen their dominance.

Like Foer, Galloway lists the sins of the tech giants as if they were the four horsemen of the apocalypse. He condemns them for stealing intellectual property, profiting from the media’s work and being disingenuous. As Galloway writes, companies like Facebook “foster a progressive brand among leadership, embrace multiculturalism, run the whole place on renewable energy—but, meanwhile, pursue a Darwinian, rapacious path to profits and ignore the job destruction taking place at your hands, every day.”

And like Foer, he also draws from personal experience; a short tenure on the board of the New York Times Co., where he clashed with Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. over a battle to sell off its non-core assets and respond more forcefully to the threat posed by Google and social media.

Galloway's argument veers a bit into the surreal when it comes to Apple. He’s convinced the popularity of the company’s products, like the allure of all luxury goods, is directly related to an irrational desire to improve one’s social status (or as he puts it, to aid one’s “procreational brand.”) I dunno; maybe iPhones just look nice and are easy to use?

But in the end, Galloway is more circumspect than Foer about this antitrust spirit that seems to be captivating tech critics these days. “There are laws and there are innovators,” he writes. “The good money is always on the innovators.”

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And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Speaking of Big Tech, the EU isn’t done with you yet. Finance ministers are looking to create a tax on digital companies such as Amazon and Facebook. “We can’t just watch how bags of money are transferred elsewhere,” says Slovakia’s Peter Kazimir. The Financial Times argued in a Sunday column that Big Tech has a monopoly on data, making “vast gains at our expense.”

New York wants Amazon’s new headquarters. The Big Apple is officially throwing its hat in the ring as cities jockey to be the retail company’s second home. Wal-Mart also needs a new headquarters, but don’t bother lobbying for it.

Equifax said its information and security chiefs are “retiring.” Their departures come after a mega breach that may have compromised data on 143 million Americans. The credit-reporting firm also said information on fewer than 400,000 consumers in the U.K. was also affected.

Female computer science majors are joining the tech workforce at an awkward time. As STEM students consider where they want to work, they’re considering an additional factor: a company’s reputation for inclusiveness.

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