The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google
This is one of a number of recent books from authors who had a front row seat at the birth of the digital economy. In this case the journey unfolds through the proxy of Four—Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook.
The prose is quick and witty. Some of the witty is admittedly built on more than a whiff of cynicism: “At its core, Apple fills two instinctual needs: to feel closer to God and be more attractive to the opposite sex.” And,“Facebook is a platform for strutting and preening…Few people post pictures of their divorce papers or how tired they look on Thursday.” You will, nonetheless, smile.
And the book is chock full of interesting trivia: “The cocktail of low-cost product and premium prices has landed Apple with a cash pile greater than the GDP of Denmark, the Russian stock market, and the market cap of Boeing, Airbus, and Nike combined.”
In the end, while the book admires what each of the Four has accomplished, it begs the question being increasingly asked: What is our digital future and are we better off for it?
It is a legitimate question. Google has more power than Standard Oil or AT&T ever dreamed of and yet the government and its regulators seem not to care. The government, in fact, cheers on the consolidation, despite the degree to which the Four contribute in a very real way to the country’s debilitating political and social polarization. “So, Facebook, and the rest of the algorithm-driven media, barely bothers with moderates.” And “This is how these algorithms reinforce polarization in our society.”
Fake news and Russian influence are the news stories of the day, but, as Galloway points out, this is the tip of the iceberg. Google, in the end, is a public utility managed as if it weren’t and Facebook is no less a media company than the New York Times or CNN. To dismiss Facebook’s power on the notion that it is a mere platform for personal expression defies common sense. “Don’t kid yourself: Facebook’s sole mission is to make money. Once the company’s success is measured in clicks and dollars, why favor true stories over false ones?”
Each of the four, moreover, yields monopoly-enabled financial power in the market, allowing them to make huge bets in things like artificial intelligence and driverless vehicles; bets that the likes of General Motors and IBM and their employees could not begin to finance out of their comparatively pedestrian and competitively constrained returns.
While Galloway clearly has a love/hate relationship with each of the Four and attempts to provide a balanced assessment, the prose devoted to the negative is definitely more acerbic in tone and more than a tad personal. I admit particular discomfort in his portrayal of Steve Jobs, suggesting that fans like myself “conveniently ignored the fact that Steve Jobs gave nothing to charity, almost exclusively hired middle-aged white guys, and was an awful person.”
Without disputing Jobs’ humanity tit for tat, as I didn't know him, he was a person with passion and authenticity; two qualities sorely lacking in many C-suites toady. There is a fine line between not suffering fools (a good thing) and bullying (a bad thing), but I still choose to believe Jobs was on the right side of that line.
Style and discrete substance aside, I do think Galloway’s main theme is accurate. “A devouring beast, Facebook will continue with more of the same. With its global reach, its near-limitless capital, and its ever-smarter data-crunching AI machine, Facebook, in combination with Google, will lay waste to much of the analog and digital media worlds.” And the Four “pursue a Darwinian, rapacious path to profits and ignore the job destruction taking place at your hands every day.” Whatever the intentions and good will of their leaders, we are allowing a consolidation of corporate power never before seen in history. Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan were mere street corner tough guys in comparison.
I further agree with Galloway that the notion that we are promoting a culture that believes that individuals, entrepreneurial or not, should be rewarded with billion dollar paydays is both dangerous and indefensible. Ultimately, no person, no business, and no idea exists in isolation. Rugged individualism is a romantic myth. Every one of us benefits from our membership in a society that protects us, educates us, and gives us roads to drive on. Every company, the Four included, enjoys both these advantages and the benefits of sound and accessible credit markets, the protection of intellectual property, and a body of publicly funded research that they can lease for pennies on the dollar.
The philosophical school of skepticism, most often associated with Pyrrho of Elis, who lived in the fourth century BCE and traveled to India with the armies of Alexander the Great, put it best. Skepticism is the suspension of judgment, called epoché, that flows from the paradox that what we know and how we know it cannot be known independently, thus precluding a definitive answer to either question. However exciting it may be, the entrepreneurial culture that empowers the digital world is built on a well-defined dogma, and is thus worthy of our legitimate skepticism.
Galloway ultimately notes that every dog has its day. All of the Four face great risk going forward; risk that has clearly not been baked into their market valuations. Google is likely to be seen for the public utility it is. Facebook will likely be stymied in its effort to facilitate meaningful communities by the inevitable erosion in public trust that is structurally inherent in its algorithmic model. Amazon, Galloway notes, will face potential backlash over the impact of its digital efficiency on retail and last mile employment. And Apple, like all companies, faces the risk of management missteps and changing tastes, although neither has threatened it to date.
I don’t share Galloway’s pessimism regarding the future of brands, but I do agree that, “No technology firm has solved the problem of aging—losing relevance.” It reflects, in part, the sine wave of development that seems inherent to the universe itself. Only Apple, Galloway notes, has yet survived beyond the cult of its original founder(s).
In the last two sections of the book Galloway tackles what it will take to be the fifth of Five, or a replacement for one of the Four, (What he calls the T Algorithm) and offers advice to young people just starting their career. The ideas are okay but a bit superficial. Everyone should be likeable, for example. If your parents didn’t teach you that you’re admittedly starting in a hole. It’s a quality you should expect of your pets, much less yourself.
The latter part of the book does lose some intensity, as a result. Some of the material, such as the need for curiosity, emotional intelligence, and a college degree are a bit redundant. And he makes a lot of generalizations, such as his observed tendency of young men to preen in meetings and what he considers the limited bandwidth of the average CEO. He readily admits his own excesses, which are, at times, a bit off-putting although the authenticity, I think, ultimately wins out.
The book, in the end, is a worthy read on an important topic. The author is sometimes a victim of excess, but aren’t we all. Gallagher has both an experience worthy of being heard and the chops to make us listen anyway.