The tech giants are different from one another

This bit from Matt Yglesias’ piece on the case against Facebook is important:

That Facebook’s relentless growth threatens the existence of news organizations is something that should make the architects of that relentless growth feel bad about themselves. They are helping to erode public officials’ accountability, foster public ignorance, and degrade the quality of American democracy.

Google, of course, poses similar threats to the journalism ecosystem through its own digital advertising industry. But Googlers can also make a strong case that Google makes valuable contributions to the information climate. I learn useful, real information via Google every day. And while web search is far from a perfect technology, Google really does usually surface accurate, reliable information on the topics you search for. Facebook’s imperative to maximize engagement, by contrast, lands it in an endless cycle of sensationalism and nonsense.

Whatever you think about the relative merits of Facebook and Google, Yglesias is right to note that the tech companies make dramatically different things. And that gets weirdly overlooked when we think about their affect on society.

The point of an organization is to produce something socially useful. As I wrote in my piece on that subject:

This is why corporate mission statements actually are important. They might not always be accurate or specific, but asking for one is a way of posing the basic question of justification. What is the purpose of your organization? What socially useful goal have you set for yourself?

What do the tech companies do? Google makes information available to people (and then shows them ads). Facebook helps people communicate with each other, and offers entertainment. Netflix offers entertainment. Apple builds computers, which at this point mostly means mobile phones. Microsoft makes software for computers, with a particular emphasis on productivity and work. Amazon lets you buy stuff over the internet.

Yes, several of these companies do more than that. But as a starting point, it’s worth thinking about how different these activities are. One way to get at that is this New York Times interactive about which tech company you could most easily do without. Here’s how readers answered:

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 2.24.02 PM

You see differences in how people value different internet services when you ask them, too — or when you try to measure how much they’d pay for them.

What’s at stake with Facebook is different from what’s at stake with Google is different from what’s at stake with Amazon. That doesn’t end any conversations about how these companies should be treated, but it is important to mention somewhere along the way.

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