Glimmers of hope in a constricting moment
By Mark Hurst • October 8, 2020

Before I start, a quick announcement.

Upcoming event: You're invited to the next Skeptech event in two weeks! Thursday, Oct 22, at 7pm Eastern, on Zoom: Skeptech: Smile for the Camera.

• Skeptech, a spinoff of my Gel conference, is an event series focused on technology's ongoing effects on our lives. This will be the third Skeptech (see the first two events here).

• On Thursday, Oct 22 - sign up here - we'll have an interactive magic show from Andy Deemer, a presentation on drones from Faine Greenwood, and a People Like Us video, as well as my own comments. Tickets are just ten bucks, and all proceeds benefit WFMU, where my radio show Techtonic is based. Hope to see you there. -mark

Now onto this week's column.

Glimmers of hope in a constricting moment

Things have gotten so noisy recently that it's rare for anything upbeat or positive to break through the clutter. So it was gratifying to see, a couple of weeks back, the "cranberry juice video": a 22-second snippet, as Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" plays in the background, in three short acts. First, establishing: a guy is riding a skateboard - on a highway! Then action: he takes a long drink from an Ocean Spray juice bottle. And finally a twist. (Watch the video if you haven't seen it.)

The video has been shared millions of times, inspiring others to post their own versions - including a brilliant Halloween-themed parody by Kiel James Patrick, as well as an homage from Mick Fleetwood himself. Ocean Spray, seeing the PR opportunity, bought the skateboarder, Nathan Apodaca, a new truck filled with juice drinks. Local news in Idaho profiled Apodaca, who seems delighted and a little surprised by all the attention.

The obvious question: Why this video? There are millions of short videos a day - on TikTok, where this originated, and on lots of other services. Apodaca had posted other music videos that never "hit." What caused this one to go viral is unknowable, of course - otherwise everyone would do it - but I'll take a guess.

Here's my hypothesis: it showed freedom.

He's on a highway - not strapped into a car, but on a skateboard! No helmet, just fully open to the air, the sky, skating along - all with the most relaxed look. A total lack of anxiety. You know what, he seems to say, I want some juice. While listening to Fleetwood Mac.

This attitude stands out today. Freedom of motion, freedom from anxiety, freedom to enjoy life - it all seems out of reach in our current atmosphere. Economically, politically, socially, we're locked in, masked up (which I support), feeling unstable - all for understandable reasons - but even so, it's a difficult and constricting moment. It's refreshing to see one person, at least, so at ease with the world that he can drink juice while skateboarding down a highway exit ramp.

Being comfortable in our own skin, in a public space, is a vision of what life could return to, once we get through this multi-headed hydra of a mess we're in. Some day.

In the meantime, we face more immediate challenges.

Congress vs. Big Tech enters a new phase

Back in July 2019 I wrote The showdown between Big Tech and democracy has begun, just after a day of Big Tech hearings in Congress. As I wrote:

I watched many hours of these hearings and was struck, above all, by two things:
(1) The sense of alarm, across both parties, across all parts of the political spectrum, about the threat that our democracy faces from Big Tech.
(2) The willingness on the part of Big Tech companies to deny, deflect, and outright lie to protect their current practices, profits, and power.
This was a showdown between Big Tech and democracy. And it's just starting.

The showdown continued a few weeks ago, in July, with the antitrust hearings that I described in This is perjury: the Big Tech hearings, summarized. The CEOs of the four Big Tech companies repeatedly dodged questions, perjured themselves, and categorically refused to take responsibility for their companies' harmful outcomes.

And then, this week, a massive advance. Congress delivered something which, to me, is just as upbeat and positive as the cranberry juice video. Rep. Cicilline's committee released Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets, a scathing 450-page indictment of the anti-competitive behavior of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple.

The report explains in great detail how all four companies - especially Google and Facebook, but also Amazon and Apple - abuse their positions in the market. This is from the very first page of the Introduction:

Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google has come at a price. These firms typically run the marketplace while also competing in it - a position that enables them to write one set of rules for others, while they play by another.

Matt Stoller summarizes the report's central thesis: "What makes these platforms unusually dangerous is that they are gatekeepers with surveillance power, and they can thus wield 'near-perfect market intelligence' to copy or undermine would-be rivals."

The report goes on to recommend anti-trust action against Big Tech, including (but not limited to) breaking up the giants. It's an extraordinary document: painstakingly researched, carefully argued, and pointed in exactly the right direction. We must - as I've said now for years - we must break up these toxic companies. Gentle reform is not going to change their behavior, still less any expectation of self-regulation. We gotta break 'em up. I'm so happy to see Cicilline and team leading the way.

One indication of the strength of this report is that it immediately drew responses from all four Big Tech companies. Predictably, the responses were defensive and deceptive - just like their CEOs at the July hearings. Business Insider reported on Oct 7: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook all came out swinging against the House antitrust report that compared them to oil barons and railroad tycoons.

Of course, there's no guaranteed outcome here, except that Big Tech will fight tooth and nail against any threat to its dominance. And that's on top of the economic and political uncertainty during and after the election. We will live awhile longer, in other words, in this constricting moment.

But think of this. Somewhere out there, on some faraway strip of pavement, someone is skating to Fleetwood Mac, reassuring us: it's gonna turn out OK.

Stay hopeful, friends.

For more reading:

• Mainstream news coverage of the antitrust report: NYT, CNN, WSJ.

• Analysis of the report: Jason Kint, Future of Music Coalition, and as listed above, Matt Stoller.

• One troubling development is a related story of an emerging truce between News Corp and Big Tech. We'll need media coverage to stay honest, and tough, on these companies - not stooping to accommodation. From Axios (Oct 6), News Corp. changes its tune on Big Tech: "News Corp. now has several partnerships with Big Tech firms, including significant paid licensing partnerships with Facebook and Apple News, as well as working partnerships with Amazon, Spotify, Snapchat and Twitter."

All past columns, if you've missed any of my recent notes.

As always, if you want to share these thoughts, please tell your friends to subscribe. I appreciate your support.

Until next time,

- Mark Hurst
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