TOC Amazon, Apple, Google..., which are the vandals? Your Turn

April 17, 2012

"Amazon is squeezing everyone out of business. [...] They're a predator." According to "Randall White, EDC's chief executive", quoted by David Streitfeld, Amazon behaves like the Vandals of the past, those enterprising upstarts who carved up a North African kingdom for themselves out of the Roman Empire and cemented their reputation by sacking Rome.

The Educational Development Corporation may not be the average American publisher, still its position is widely shared by the industry. No wonder some of the biggest publishers dined with Apple, asking for some underhanded help, or so the US Department of Justice claims in a recent law suit.

Publishers may want to reflect on Procopius' assertion the Vandals were invited into North Africa by the local Roman general in charge (1). The Vandals are not necessarily to be found among one's obvious ennemies. Allies may prove just as intractable.

Whoever in the end proves to be the real predator, the little people are certain to play the prey. According to David Gelles and Edward Edgecliffe-Johnson (**), the DoJ argues that "Apple clearly understood that its participation in th[e] scheme would result in higher prices to consumers".

One should never forget that, for louts looking for loot, money is only one among many means. Google has always coveted payments in kind under cover of free services. The Street View project is an old story but "a report over the weekend from federal regulators has rekindled questions over exactly what the company was doing" (***). David Streitfeld and Edward Wyatt balances the point of view of the Federal Communications Commission with Google's official comment "its collection of - [...] Internet communications, including texts and e-mails - was legal, if regrettable".

No doubt Genseric, Eric Schmidt's past equivalent as king of the Vandals, would have expressed similar regrets. Consider Rome had opened its gates as his army was passing by. If his soldiers got carried away in implementing his business transaction with the Roman authorities, who's to blame? Whether unencrypted Wi-Fi data or unguarded treasures, isn't all unprotected personal property there for the taking?

However patient and unless they share my taste for History and my theory about its helicoidal unfolding, my readers may wonder what is my point.

When comparing the disappearance of the Industrial Age to the passing away of the Roman Empire, we actually gain a better perspective.

In all modesty, I claim Augustine of Hippo as model (2). Faced with those wandering barbarians, he had no clue as to what the future would bring. He wrote about the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, which he knew about, not the one by the Vandals, which happened after his death. Besieged by the latter in his diocese of Hippo, he did not foresee that a century later these invaders would be swept aside in the Byzantine dustbin of History.

Who knows which company, as much it struts and thrives among us as the Vandals did during Augustine's life, will likewise be both villified to the end of times and nullified in almost no time at all? Who knows which company, how obscure it might be today, will in hindsight be found to have fared the fate of those rather less salient Salian Franks, who begat France for the Age to come?

That no one company today can be assured of surviving longer than a Myspace is made patent by Richard Waters in his column about Facebook's bid for Instagram (****). "Facebook has always display a strong sense of paranoia - no bad thing, given the low barriers of entry in its industry". If Facebook feels justifiably insecure, if Nokia's fading shows that manufacturing hardware is no panacea, who can claim to be a sustainable success?

While Augustine could only state the obvious when it came to material facts, he worked mightily to enlighten his contemporaries on what they meant.

Forget then about picking the winner beyond the shortest of terms. Fully confessing I am no Augustine, I offer four thoughts to your contemplation.

In our Information Age, fun has become the first principle from which all things must flow. Why else "a complex, busy web service can't hope to compete with the simplicity and delight of a purpose-built app like Instagram"? Why else "image-centric services have an obvious appeal to brands that want to create an emotional connection to users"? Information may be true or false. It must entertain.

Entertain the public, you become popular. Become popular, you convey the truth. The danger lies in the fact its other sources may become plugged.

Yet the current trend is to outsource truth to crowds as much as possible. Each in their own way, Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook are but a recommendation engine whose results are driven by crowd approval. If no one can be right unless crowned by enough of a crowd to rise to the top of their lists, individual taste, talent and truth will all be dumbed down.

Mind, neither do I disparage popular truth nor do I think its voice will for ever drown both science and credible witnesses. Like the culture of Late Antiquity, western culture largely depends on experts. Replace them by crowds, barbaric or modern, new experts will eventually prompt a renaissance and affix a "dark age" label on the prior period, each of the three sources of truth for ever fighting to eliminate their other two sibblings.

Meanwhile no social sharing goes unsupervised. Hardly anyone may notice this phenomenon, it is no less real. Each in their own way, Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook want to make themselves equal to God and know all about you all the time. Is this progress? Augustine would demur.

Yet sustainability will go to those who recognize the value-adders. "Do publishers' editorial and promotional efforts create value, resulting in something rare and useful?" is how the Lex aptly sum up the row raised by DoJ lawsuit (*****).

Predators today must have fun. Either they appropriate the value accumulated in old businesses whose model has been found inappropriate today or they supervise social bees brain-washed into finding their own fun in working for free.

Whoever they are, these Vandals destroy more than they build. They will be destroyed to let better builders create the new Age they introduced.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Daring to Cut Off Amazon, by David Streitfeld (New York Times) - Apr 16, 2012
  • (**) ....... Publishers sued over ebook price 'collusion', by David Gelles and Edward Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - Apr 12, 2012
  • (***) ..... Unanswered Questions in F.C.C.'s Google Case, by David Streitfeld and Edward Wyatt (New York Times) - Apr 16, 2012
  • (****) ... Facebook shows it gets the message with Instagram deal, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - Apr 12, 2012
  • (*****) . Ebook pricing, by the Lex (Financial Times) - Apr 13, 2012
  • (1) see Procopius in the wikipedia
  • (2) see Saint Augustine in the wikipedia
April 2012
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