Do you own any Apple products? If not, have you checked your Facebook feed today? If you’re boycotting both Apple and Facebook, then when was the last time you bought a book – or anything – from a company other than Amazon? And if you’re also a militant offline shopper, then how long has it been since you conducted a Google search?
There may be those out there who can say, with a clear conscience, that they’ve done none of these things in the last few days. But most of us have interacted with either Apple, Facebook, Amazon or Google, or some combination of the four, within the last 24 hours.
In the book, “The Four” by Scott Galloway, he explains how these companies come to dominate the modern marketplace, and that, though they proclaim themselves to be benevolent pioneers of the future, their motives don’t always chime with that message. And today, four companies – the author refers to them as the Four Horsemen – seek to satisfy them all our needs.
Google has supplanted God. Instead of directing questions to an ever-silent deity on high, we now type them into Google’s search engine and receive answers instantaneously. Facebook provides the love and connection that were once only to be found at home or among friends. Apple shores up our sex appeal. The iPhone and the MacBook aren’t technically superior to other smartphones or laptops. But they’re undeniably sexier. And Amazon, the temple of consumption, is there to bring us everything our heart may desire, be it fiction, food or fashion. These Four Horsemen – god, love, sex and consumption – probably aren’t harbingers of a biblical apocalypse. But their ubiquity has certainly changed the world.
Today, it doesn’t matter whether you’re searching for a nail file or a novel – you’ll probably look for it on Amazon first. In the United States, Amazon is already the top choice for online purchases, and it’s swiftly moving into that position abroad as well.
And Apple isn’t only the producer of universally coveted mobile phones and computers; it’s also the most profitable company ever. Meanwhile, 1.2 billion people visit their Facebook profile every day. In other words, Facebook has managed to congregate nearly one-sixth of the world population in the same digital space.
Finally, Google is a latter-day oracle, an ever-flowing fountain of knowledge. There’s no question we can’t ask it, and the answers come back at pace – in roughly 0.0000005 seconds, which is a lot faster than you’d get a response back in Delphi’s heyday.
There’s no doubt that the Four Horsemen have changed – many would say improved – our world, but they aren’t the benevolent knights people often imagine them to be.Here’s the standard story: this quartet of companies has done a great deal of good, creating thousands of jobs, making a myriad of products easily accessible and providing services that improve our day-to-day lives. In other words, they’re making the world a better place.
But take a moment to look at the fine print. Amazon, in addition to refusing to pay sales taxes, is renowned for mistreating its employees; in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack, Apple refused to follow court orders and provide information that could have been valuable to federal agents; Facebook takes our most personal information and sells it; and Google aggressively lobbies and litigates against regulation of its anticompetitive practices.
First, let’s look at Amazon, the horseman of consumption. In 2016, Amazon’s growth accounted for roughly half the growth of all online companies in the United States. And the number of Amazon Prime memberships is on the rise. In 2017, 52 percent of American households held one. So what caused this horseman’s wild success? Well, Amazon appeals to our instincts – particularly our age-old urge to gather stuff.
For the majority of our history, we humans have been hunter-gatherers. Our ability to find and stockpile food and other useful objects not only increased our chances of survival; it also made us more attractive to potential mates.
So it’s no surprise that the buying and hoarding of things is one of capitalist society’s most venerated activities. Companies have known about our consumerist instincts for quite a while now. But Amazon has capitalized on them like no other company in history.
Today, you can buy practically anything, from books to beer to batteries, and, within a day, have it delivered to your doorstep – all without getting up from the couch. Scale is the secret to Amazon’s success. Its customers number in the millions because, as an online company, it can reach virtually anyone who wants to buy something and can grow in almost any retail industry.
But Amazon’s success comes at the expense of other companies. Since it’s so big, Amazon has no problem underselling virtually all the competition. This puts competing companies out of business, destroying thousands of jobs in the process.
And Amazon isn’t much of a job creator, either. Ever notice how few pictures there are from inside Amazon warehouses? Well, there’s a reason for that: they’re disturbingly devoid of humans. Indeed, Amazon’s human workforce is increasingly being replaced by robots and mechanization.
By one estimate, Amazon’s growth in 2017 destroyed roughly 76,000 jobs. In the meantime, this retail behemoth is in the race to become the world’s first trillion-dollar company.
On December 2, 2015, a 28-year-old health inspector named Syed Rizwan Farook, together with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot and killed 14 of Farook’s coworkers at a departmental event.
The shooting was deemed a terrorist attack, and, when the FBI acquired Farook’s locked iPhone, a court order was issued, demanding that Apple unlock it. But Apple refused to cooperate – and its decision to defy the law even gained public support. How did it manage this?
Apple makes its own rules. Steve Jobs has become a tech icon, and his creations are hallowed as sacred objects. The MacBook and the iPhone symbolize innovation and coolness, qualities that somehow put Apple above the law.
But an ability to flout the law isn’t all that differentiates Apple from its competitors; its profits also set it apart.
In 2015 alone, Apple recorded a net profit of $53.4 billion, a level of success never before achieved by a single company. In 2016, its earnings accounted for 79 percent of all smartphone-market profits, though it only controlled 14.5 percent of that market.
How did Apple pull this off? Well, we all want to be special, and Apple’s luxury items – its iPhones and MacBooks and iPads, which are as elegant and stylish as we want our lives to be – promise us that we can be. And there’s no doubt that these are luxury items because Apple has three things in common with other luxury brands like Porsche and Prada:
• It has an iconic founder, Steve Jobs.
• It expresses its artisanship via the simplicity of its design.
• Despite being a low-cost producer, Apple sells its products at premium prices.
Luxury is sexy, and it’s this sexiness, not some innate superiority, that’s responsible for Apple’s success. To be continued:
Check out my related post: How to get Hooked?