I had very much the same reaction to Josh Marshall’s piece about Google as John Gruber did. Sometimes companies like Google and Amazon will actively do something questionable—like try to squash unflattering press coverage. Sometimes their huge size causes a chilling effect, where people reliant on their largesse will act pre-emptively to stave off anticipated punishment for speaking out against them.
But a lot of times, it’s just how John describes it: A switch gets triggered somewhere, you get an automated email, and your ad revenue or affiliate revenue gets turned off. It could completely devastate your business, but it’s hard to know who sent the message, let alone how to reach a human being in order to try to get the issue corrected. When you’re dealing with one of the giants, even the smallest of bugs or misunderstandings can be devastating.
I’m reminded of an exchange in the 1997 film “Contact“, which I just re-watched for a membership bonus episode of the Liftoff podcast. In the scene, Jodie Foster’s astronomer Ellie Arroway argues to NASA administrator David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) that aliens advanced enough to send messages to us wouldn’t bother attacking us.
Ellie: We pose no threat to them. It would be like us going out of our way to destroy a few microbes on an anthill in Africa.
Drumlin: Interesting analogy. And how guilty would we feel if we went and destroyed a few microbes on an anthill in Africa?
We live in a world where huge portions of the tech sector are controlled by a few enormous companies. Their technology enables many people to make a living and build businesses, but when a company is that big, even the smallest of moves can have unforeseen and potentially catastrophic impacts.