Twenty years ago, when Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates deigned to appear before a Congressional panel to address the then-plausible accusations that the computing and software enterprise he headed then was operating as a dangerous monopoly, the moment was considered a historic match-up of power versus justice, opportunity versus principle, the future versus the past. It was also one of those odd moments when the people we assume are responsibly managing important ideas and duties — government officials, heads of businesses, purveyors of information — are really just small people in big jobs, as credulous or irresponsible, or self-serving, as the people we encounter and endure every day.
Today, the world is more chaotic and unpredictable, in my view due to the steady decline of credibility and responsibility by and for public institutions (government, businesses, schools, etc.); and due to the low-regard most of us now hold for individuals, especially those in positions of authority.
So, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared to testify in Congress this month, the images were familiar – but the effect was more amusing than intriguing. The reason is that no one can long sustain the necessary composure to learn the meaning of some development, or to listen to the intentions of other people trying to explain a point or a concern. We don’t need to learn anything new now. We’re all too clever, too in-the-know, too ready to let loose with a wisecrack that will get all our listeners focused on us. We don’t give any respect to things that cannot amuse and engage us. We are the focus of all our attention.
This is a pity, because Zuckerberg’s appearance may have significance, now and in the future.
The role of Facebook would not seem as relevant today as Microsoft did in 1998. While Microsoft then was the primary supplier of computer hardware and business software, to businesses, to public and private institutions, and to individuals, Facebook is a service used mainly by individuals for diversion and personal communication. Microsoft drew billions of dollars in revenue for its products at that time; “… we run ads,” Zuckerberg told one of his questioners trying to unlock Facebook’s devious plots.
The most significant difference between 1998 Microsoft and 2018 Facebook is not the products they offer but the market in which they do their respective businesses. The former offered specific items for sale; the latter constantly evaluates the activities happening on its platform and finds ways to tag it for sale, and resale. The users of Microsoft came and went, and if Microsoft performed well they came again. The users of Facebook arrive, and stay, and become the product that Facebook can offer — to advertisers, of course, but also to buyers of data seeking their own new audiences to mine for revenue.
And most of those users care not at all if their information is collected and repurposed. They only want to be amused or entertained.
Facebook’s way of doing business is not new, but its market share is unprecedented. It has access to subscribers/products in places that its would-be regulators cannot reach. It is global in a way that most of us have never comprehended “global” in describing any other business — and so the wholly separate controversies in which government regulators seek to impose “fairness” in markets like steel or aluminum are comparatively insignificant.
The market for products has become small and transitory. The market for information, for data, for intellectual property, has become vast and in some ways permanent. The information Facebook or another entity collects on us may last longer than we are alive — and so the next time some high-tech mogul appears before regulators, be prepared not to laugh too obviously.