Tech’s Frightful Five: They’ve Got Us

A few weeks ago, I bought a new television. When the whole process was over, I realised something incredible: To navigate all of the niggling details surrounding this one commercial transaction — figuring out what to buy, which accessories I needed, how and where to install it, and whom to hire to do so — I had dealt with only a single ubiquitous corporation: Amazon. Read this blog by Farhad Manjoo, Tech New York Times.

It wasn’t just the TV. As I began combing through other recent household decisions, I found that in 2016, nearly 10 percent of my household’s commercial transactions flowed through the Seattle retailer, more by far than any other company my family dealt with. What’s more, with its Echos, Fire TV devices, audiobooks, movies and TV shows, Amazon has become, for my family, more than a mere store. It is my confessor, my keeper of lists, a provider of food and culture, an entertainer and educator and handmaiden to my children.

This may sound over the top. But what about you? I suspect that if you closely examine your own life, there’s a good chance some other technology company occupies the same role for you as Amazon does for me: as warden of a very comfortable corporate prison.

This is the most glaring and underappreciated fact of internet-age capitalism: We are, all of us, in inescapable thrall to one of the handful of American technology companies that now dominate much of the global economy. I speak, of course, of my old friends the Frightful Five: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

The five are among the most valuable companies on the planet, collectively worth trillions. (Apple reached $800 billion in market capitalization this week, the first of any public company to do so, and the others may not be far behind.) And despite the picture of Silicon Valley as a roiling sea of disruption, these five have gotten only stronger and richer over time.

Their growth has prompted calls for greater regulation and antitrust intervention. There’s rising worry, too, over their softer, noneconomic influence over culture and information — for instance, fears over how Facebook might affect democracies — as well as the implicit threat they pose to the jurisdictions of world governments.

These are all worthy topics for discussion, but they are also fairly cold and abstract. So a better way to appreciate the power of these five might be to take the very small view instead of the very large — to examine the role each of them plays in your own day-to-day activities, and the particular grip each holds on your psyche.

So, last week I came up with a fun game: If an evil, tech-phobic monarch forced you to abandon each of the Frightful Five, in which order would you do so, and how much would your life deteriorate as a result? To help answer this, please take a moment with this column’s companion quiz.

When I went through the thought experiment, I found that dropping the first couple of tech giants was pretty easy — but after that the process became progressively more unbearable. For me, Facebook was the first to go. I tend to socialize online using Twitter, Apple’s messaging system, and Slack, the office-chat app, so losing Mark Zuckerberg’s popular service (and its subsidiaries, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) was not such a big deal.

Next, for me, was Microsoft, which I found slightly more difficult to quit. I don’t normally use any Windows devices, but Microsoft’s word-processing program, Word, is an essential tool for me, and I’d hate to lose it.

In third place, full of regrets: Apple. There’s nothing I use more than my iPhone, and close behind are my MacBook and iMac 5K, which may be the best computer I’ve ever owned. Abandoning Apple would prompt deep and truly annoying rearrangements in my life, including braving Samsung’s bad software. But I could do it, grudgingly.

It’s when I imagine getting down to the last two that life becomes something else. It’s here that you begin to confront how thoroughly the Frightful Five have woven their way into our lives, and how completely we’ve come to depend on them.

In fourth place, for me, was Google. I just can’t fathom living without it. Without the world’s best search engine, my job would become well-nigh impossible. Without YouTube, it would become significantly less entertaining. Without everything else Google makes — email, maps, calendar, translation software, photo storage and the Android mobile operating system, which I’d need after ditching Apple — I’d be relegated to a life of some poor soul from long ago (say, 1992).