The announcement of Amazon’s HQ2 plans for New York City has brought about important questions about the origins of this deal. How could our leaders pledge $1.5 billion to Amazon at a time when libraries and schools lack funding, the subway is in dire need of improvement, and one out of seven New Yorkers suffers from food insecurity?

Skepticism about the deal has come from all corners. After Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted her “extreme concern” on Twitter, the Wall Street Journal and National Review both published pieces agreeing with her. It’s remarkable that HQ2 has brought about a moment of bipartisanship during this polarized season.

Still, I don’t think these questions address the full scope of what’s happening. New York isn’t being taken over by Amazon, it’s being taken over by Big Tech. Consider:

– Google has just announced its intent to secure another 1.3 million square feet of Manhattan office space, which, when added to the company’s real estate in Chelsea, gives the company more square footage in New York City than in their northern California headquarters;

– Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs has installed over 1,600 LinkNYC kiosks throughout New York City, each outfitted with three cameras and dozens of sensors, collecting unknown amounts of data on New Yorkers;

– Facebook, according to a New York Times story on November 14, called on Senator Schumer to help deflect the Senate’s investigation of Russian meddling on the social network;

– Facebook was also the target of a walkout last week by Brooklyn high school students, who protested the Facebook-designed curriculum that their school forces them to sit through.

These are just a few of the many indicators that something is changing in New York. When viewed alongside the corruption of the HQ2 deal, they clearly point out the direction that Big Tech wants to take our city.

I can say with confidence – having worked over two decades in the tech industry – that these companies are optimized for one thing: launching platforms to crush all opposition. For example, Google’s Gmail has become the dominant email service in the world, despite nagging privacy concerns. Amazon is steamrolling the entire retail industry. And the worldwide effects of Facebook – propaganda, rising authoritarianism, even genocide – are all made possible by its dominance as the leading social network.

This domination, across the Big Tech platforms, is largely driven by continuous extraction of our data, usually without our knowledge or consent, and quite often without any legal basis (and accompanied by hypocritical slogans like “connecting the world” or “don’t be evil”). This data allows the companies to manipulate markets, elections, and social groups to behave in ways that further benefit Big Tech. Hence Google’s interest, for example, in those LinkNYC kiosks drawing down as much data as possible from New Yorkers. The citizens of New York serve as valuable data sources for Google’s algorithms.

What all this points to is Big Tech’s interest in turning New York itself into one of its platforms. Imagine: a city where all the students are forced to study a Facebook-designed curriculum … where all transactions go through Amazon … where all the sidewalks are fully surveilled by Alphabet sensors … and above all, where our mayor, governor, and (at least one) senator do the bidding of their west-coast benefactors! Once Big Tech achieves its dominance of New York City, we’ll be nothing more than their satellite state, useful for our physical footprint and some residual financial talent remaining from our past days of Wall Street pre-eminence. Our infrastructure may crumble, and our schools may continue to fail, but at least we’ll officially be in the care of Big Tech as one of its favored platforms.

New Yorkers still have an opportunity to resist this outcome. First, we must gain better awareness, paying attention to Big Tech’s increasingly strong claim on our commerce, our streets, and our real estate. Most people I talk to, for instance, have no idea who’s behind the LinkNYC kiosks. And many New Yorkers can’t say who owns popular services like Instagram or Waze. (Facebook and Alphabet, respectively.) The more we’re informed about Big Tech’s influences on our day-to-day life, the less likely we’ll be caught off-guard by their next attempt to take over our lives – or our city.

Second, and most importantly, we must actively support the people who are working to expose and counteract Big Tech’s plans for New York. Here I refer to the journalists, researchers, and politicians who – like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – are willing to stand up and tell the truth about the corrupt HQ2 deal. With this sort of pressure, our elected representatives will be forced to demonstrate where their loyalty lies: with the tech billionaires, or with the citizens of this city.

With all the news about Big Tech's missteps, it can make you wonder whether online tech is a lost cause, having turned into a morass of surveillance machines, soulless slot-machine apps, and dark patterns, all fueled by "the weaponization of UX," as Evan Selinger put it.

But there's hope. Small teams on the edges, most of them nonprofit, are beginning to create better tech that actually tries to benefit users, rather than exploit them. Some are more established, while some are just starting out, but they represent a new beginning, which we badly need.

Here's what I'm seeing so far:

DuckDuckGo instead of Google
FastMail or ProtonMail instead of Gmail
Diaspora instead of Facebook
Mastodon instead of Twitter
Framatube, aka PeerTube, instead of YouTube (Framatube is one of several services from France-based FramaSoft)
• Good Todo instead of Google Tasks (full disclosure, Good Todo is my own service)

In addition,...
• Platforms like Civil and Tim Berners-Lee's Solid that promise to decentralize the Web
• Lists of alternatives like NoMoreGoogle.com and RestorePrivacy.org and FramaSoft

Do you know of others? Post a comment below to let me know.

A number of people recently have suggested that Facebook - by profiting from the social harm it causes, yet denying its culpability - is acting like the tobacco industry in the 1990s. While there undeniably are similarities between the two, I think there's a better analogy.

Facebook isn't cigarettes, it's asbestos.

Asbestos, of course, is a dangerous carcinogen that was used as insulation in buildings for many years, before its harmful health effects became widely known.

Consider how asbestos sounds an awful lot like Facebook:

• Initially promising - and it was good at its stated purpose - it turned out to have toxic effects that far outweighed the advantages.

• Immediate harm to an individual is hard to detect at first, but long-term effects are visible; and society-wide, it's terrible.

• People in poorer countries tend to be stuck with it, while wealthy industrialized nations are waking up to the danger, and ripping it out.

• And you do have to rip it out. You can't gradually peck away at the thing, since it's installed down at an infrastructural level. It's a pain to get rid of, and expensive, but it has to be done.

• Once a society is educated to its danger, it is socially unacceptable to let your loved ones - especially your kids - live with it.

Perhaps this will be a helpful metaphor as we discuss what to do about Facebook.

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For more:

Subscribe to my Techtonic podcast, my weekly WFMU radio show on technology.

• See also the featured New York Times personal-tech piece this week: How to Delete Facebook and Instagram From Your Life Forever.

This month marks 20 years of my writing the Creative Good email newsletter (after starting this blog in '97). I've seen a lot along the way: boom & bust cycles, buzzwords, trends and fads, so many things that have risen up and faded away. But along the way, the internet has permanently changed the world. For better and, more recently, worse.

Throughout, I've tried to maintain the "creative good" ideal, the belief in products that do good, in platforms that actually treat users with basic human respect, in services that actually benefit people in the long run. I've tried to show how it actually does work, if companies create good experiences, rather than exploiting people for short-term gain.

Recently it's been a tough idea to hold onto. The rise of Big Tech and its business model of surveillance, manipulation, and monopoly - undergirded by techno-chauvinist arrogance - have brought about some disappointing outcomes, to put it lightly. And until recently, it hasn't shown signs of fading away.

I've been wondering: where does it go from here? Is there still a place for people who think systemically about creating good experiences? I don't mean designing an interface to more easily, say, share a toxic post on social media. I mean designing products that people actually want, and can gain value from - see Customers Included - rather than tricking them into psychological addiction loops.

But things do seem to be changing, a bit. For example, this appeared on Twitter a few days ago:

"Facebook is starting to feel like those last few years of Blockbuster." -Mark Normand

Ahh, late-stage Blockbuster. I remember it well from the late 90s. In those days, everyone rented movies from Blockbuster not because they liked it, but because it was the only option (beyond the odd indie rental place, and most were odd, in a good way). The company was fueled by punitive late fees: you had to bring back your movie in two days, or else. The experience was disappointing, if not outright hostile, to customers.

Then Netflix launched. Those little red envelopes started arriving into mailboxes everywhere, with no late fees, and in that moment, Blockbuster ceased to exist as a viable proposition. The end of Blockbuster's dominance can be traced back to one single factor: the improvement in the experience, as offered by a competitor.

Consider the parallels between Facebook today and Blockbuster in the late 1990s. Just about everyone uses Facebook today - not because they like it, but because it's the only way they know how to keep up with friends and family.

And yet, most people can sense that something about Facebook is a bit "off." Every week brings new revelations that the company has deceived its users - or enabled others to do so - for financial gain. Meantime, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have repeatedly been called to Congress to apologize.

Consider recent Facebook news:

Pew Research just reported that over a quarter of American adults 18 and over have deleted the Facebook app from their smartphone in the past year. And Business Insider reported that "time spent on the social network has fallen by almost 7%."

• Facebook's harmful effects around the globe are getting higher-profile media coverage. For example, read this BuzzFeed News article about Facebook's explicit and strong support of the Philippine dictator Rodrigo Duterte. Another recent piece covers the role of WhatsApp - a Facebook property - in a series of lynchings in an Indian town. And then there's Facebook news from Myanmar, Germany, and elsewhere.

• Zuckerberg himself is getting more scrutiny, as in this new profile in the New Yorker, which reveals Zuck's bizarre fascination with Caesar Augustus (he named his second daughter "August" after the Roman dictator). Meantime, other celebrities in the news are swearing off any connection to Zuck's apps - like Michael Stipe announcing he's done with Instagram - which is owned, of course, by Facebook.

• Calls for anti-trust action, to break up Facebook into its component parts, are gaining momentum. Here's author and Columbia professor Tim Wu writing in The Verge: It's Time To Break Up Facebook.

I'm hopeful that with time, and what I suppose will be some strong anti-trust action, Facebook will eventually fade out, or at least get regulated into some shape that is not so egregiously toxic. The larger question is, does good experience still win the day, online? Or are we stuck with Big Tech pushing for ever-more invasive and ethically compromised products, while citizens hope for anti-trust regulators to save the day?

As I begin my third decade writing this newsletter, I certainly hope it's the former. I'll continue to advocate for products and teams that create good, that include customers, and that set their sights on long-term benefits. And if you're on board, thanks for sticking with me. Onward!

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Interested in more? Get my podcast Techtonic on WFMU, or drop me a line.

- Mark Hurst

Neal Sedaka sang it first, in 1962. Breaking up is hard to do.

And yet. Difficult though it may be, it's time to break up Big Tech.

(Need a second opinion? OK, here's the Boston Globe: "Break up Google.")

Some people throw up their hands. "It's too difficult. Someone else should do something. What difference can I make, anyway?" That's the attitude of technofatalism, and we have to fight it.

As tech historian Marie Hicks writes, "Technofatalism isn't logical; it's a highly destructive failure of imagination and unwillingness to resist the status quo. It's the sullen twin of technophilia. Both assume tech can and will determine society. It's not that simple. We have a fighting chance. But we have to fight."

Below, my recent material on doing something to fight Big Tech and get back to creating good with technology. Enjoy. And drop a line if I can help your organization. -mark

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My recent interviews on my Techtonic radio show on WFMU:

(Tip: Listen either in the podcast or on the pages below, click "Pop-up Player".)

- Felix Salmon, financial journalist: Listen (click "Pop-up Player"):

- Meredith Broussard, author, "Artificial Unintelligence" (incl. why self-driving cars are way more dangerous than you expect): Listen

- Andrew Keen, author, "How to Fix the Future": Listen

- Brett Frischmann, co-author, "Re-Engineering Humanity": Listen

- John Keating, director of the new documentary on esports, "Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon": Listen

PODCAST version: Get these interviews on the Techtonic podcast.

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Google:

Break Up Google, says the Boston Globe: "Never in the history of the world has a single company had so much control over what people know and think . . . [and] Google’s power is bound to grow still more. Last year, it spent more on federal lobbying than any other company. By tweaking the way information appears on search pages, Google can already promote its own websites and banish competitors to digital oblivion."

Google’s Selfish Ledger Is An Unsettling Vision Of Silicon Valley Social Engineering (The Verge, May 17): an "internal video from 2016 shows a Google concept for how total data collection could reshape society." Nightmare material, courtesy of Google.

Alternatives to Google: past Techtonic guest Gabriel Weinberg (listen to the show) and his search engine Duck Duck Go are featured here: This Search Engine Is Profitable Without Tracking You Online. And Google and Facebook Could Do It Too. See also this list of non-Google services, by David Pierce (May 8), published of all places in the Wall Street Journal.

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Facebook:

• It's not too late to delete your Facebook account: easy how-to at deletefacebook.com.

"Zuckerberg lied to Congress," says David Carroll, professor at Parsons. My suggestion is that we just charge them the $3.4 trillion they owe for violating the consent decree (see Jason Kint's calculation), liquidate the company, and use the proceeds to build a citizen-owned, non-addictive, democracy-respectful social network.

• Speaking of which, project I need to look into: Platform.coop, supporting platform co-ops.

• Conclusion: We need to break up Big Tech, starting with Google and Facebook. Axios reports that the left (and the right) are turning up heat to break up Facebook.

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Amazon and surveillance:

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson has unplugged his Amazon Echo. "If anyone in our house is uncomfortable with devices listening to our conversations, I don’t want to subject them to that. . . This raises a broader question about these voice devices which is whether the value they offer outweighs the creepiness they create in the home. For us, the answer has been a resounding no."

Amazon’s Facial Recognition Fans Big Brother Fears (WSJ, May 22): "The retail giant has been selling the technology as a means to help authorities identify suspects in surveillance footage . . . The ACLU and other civil-rights organizations sent a letter to Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos expressing 'profound concerns' about the potential misuse of the technology, which Amazon calls Rekognition."

Alexa listened to a couple's conversation and sent it to the husband's employee without permission (BoingBoing, May 24): Complaint from a Portland woman that Alexa "listened in on a conversation and sent it to a random contact of theirs – one of her husband's employees. . . When KIRO-7 questioned Amazon, they responded with this: 'Amazon takes privacy very seriously. We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.'"

How to make sure your Amazon Echo doesn't send secret recordings (CNN, May 25) - almost unbelievably, CNN actually suggests that you "live like everyone's watching": "You can unplug them all until you are confident in the tech industries [sic] privacy protections, or you can go about your daily life avoiding doing or saying anything embarrassing (or illegal)." Thanks, CNN, we'll try to be more compliant from now on!

Above: rental car shuttle or prison bus?

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Fun Stuff:

Inspiring video of an 8-year-old drumming to Led Zeppelin

A very special soccer goal

Spot-on video about Facebook from The Daily Show, imagining Facebook as a bar.