Every time I hit the “add to cart” button, I feel a twinge of guilt. Just a twinge, mind you, and it doesn’t stop me from ordering another item from Amazon that I could have bought at a retail store. Why drive? With a push of the finger, boxes arrive at my door: books, razor blades, gasoline stabilizer, dog food and poop bags, ashwagandha root, waterproof car-key bags for my kayak. This habit, of course, makes me complicit in how Amazon laid waste to the bookstores I once loved to browse, and in its ongoing siege of specialty shops, department stores, and malls. When I Google, I’m also complicit in what the search giant (and Facebook) has done to the newspaper industry that employed me for 25 years, and still provides the reporting we need to have a functioning democracy. Yet shaped by immediate rewards, I go on Googling and one-click ordering anyway, abetting these companies’ growth into $500 billion behemoths as dominant as the monopolies of the Gilded Age. (See Briefing.)
No doubt about it: Amazon, Google, and Facebook have earned their success, by providing near-magical levels of convenience, instant information, and connection. But the pursuit of ever-larger profit and growth can be an amoral force, crushing everything in its way; creative destruction is not always socially beneficial. In the late 19th century, the rapacious behavior of “ robber barons” sparked a populist rebellion and the trust-busting of Teddy Roose velt. Today, the costs of the tech giants’ dominance have largely been accepted: a massive loss of privacy, the erosion of public marketplaces and jobs, the growing control just a few companies have over the news and information millions of people consume. Amazon, Google, and Facebook know us. They cater to and shape our wants. Seduced and dopamine-addicted, we do not object to our dependence, as we click our way into the future they have imagined for us.