Do you remember the revulsion you felt when you first learned where meat came from? That visceral reaction is how I felt reading through Scott Galloway’s The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The food on your plate becomes unappetising when you learn it once had a face. (Perhaps more so for me given I lived on a farm and the face had also been a playmate.) For the most part, my relationships with Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google began simply because they were in front of me. Years ago now, I was working in youth ministry and Facebook was where the youth were connecting and sharing information, so they helped me set up an account. I didn’t really consider it a product to be evaluated against other options, and like msn messenger before it, I assumed my relationship with it would be relatively short lived. Yet here we still are. Amazon is in my life almost exclusively to buy books, with the occasional gift purchase to avoid the hassle of shipping it myself. In truth, I’ve never given it much thought. At some point google entered my life. I’m not sure I noticed. In fact, of the four companies Galloway explores, Apple is the only one I actually researched and chose intentionally. (It’s capacity for easy home movie editing and image creation would be a benefit in ministry for someone lacking both artistic and tech skills.) In so many ways these products just landed on my plate, but Galloway’s book was like a tour of the abattoir.
Scott Galloway is a professor at New York University’s Stern school of business and has started a number of large businesses himself. Throughout the book he cites examples where the ‘big four’ impeded his own business growth as well as divulging their key strategies to decimate their competition by taking risks that nobody else can afford to take. He talks through the graveyard of acquired and now redundant companies that spark a ‘oh that’s where they went’ reaction (much as I learned where those fuzzy faces disappeared to). While such behaviour is generally acceptable within capitalism, the success of these companies has given them an uncomfortable amount of power. Galloway’s frequent alignment of the four with religious images increases the discomfort as the deification of the companies exposes both their idol status and their insidious drive to be omniscient, omnipresent and unless regulated, economically omnipotent. What snuck into my own life almost imperceivably, and presumably did the same to millions of others—possibly billions—has grown into an amoral platform motivated by profit margin.“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? Just hire a few “media watchdog” firms to give you cover.” Yet people are hungry for both meaning and connection. “Consumption has taken the place of shared sacrifice during times of war and economic malaise. The nation needs you to keep buying more stuff.” ‘
This hunger for rally points extends to religion. In looking at the impact of Saint Jude, Vincent Miller suggests that having an icon or image to rally around united people who had begun to feel isolated and separated. Shrines to St. Jude began to gather notes and prayers of people isolated by difficult circumstances.“It supplemented the kinship structures that were being lost in the suburban exodus, by providing a pretence for people to acknowledge others’ suffering, to share their own experiences, and to offer hope.” In a Similar way, Facebook works as a rallying point for those same increasingly isolated people. People can share about their suffering as well as their victories and receive affirmation that others out their take notice through ‘likes’. Unfortunately, the connections are often illusory or surface deep. Our deep hunger and yearning for relationships is met artificially, and the very real need for tangible support and connection goes unmet. Much as eating highly processed, sugar filled food fills your belly but does notnourish your body, Facebook offers connection to people without offering connection with people. We maintain only the illusion of relationships. Facebook uses our friendships to shape targeted advertising. Our value is only as consumers to them, useful only in as far as we spend money and are valuable to external investors. However, the level of information that Facebook—or Google or Amazon—has about you, allows the platform to imply an intimate relationship with it as it offers you products and services that genuinely interest you. These platforms understand you at least as well as your friends; probably better. “Most consumers … want to be special. And a sizeable fraction of the consuming population will pay a premium for that attention. That fraction also tends to be the customers with the most disposable income.” Targeted advertising replaces the feeling of being ‘special’ and known that has waned due to social isolation.
Such a move toward dominance in our lives should not go unchecked. Cal Newport offers one option to reclaim intentional thinking.“Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance. This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy.” At the very least, it is prudent to be intentional about our engagement with large corporations and keep at the forefront of our mind their bottom line goal. If we are going to continue to consume what has appeared on our plate, we ought to at least be fully aware of the sacrifices that put it there and the risks associated with its ongoing consumption.