Big Tech’s corruption was 25 years in the making
By Mark Hurst • April 11, 2024

I had some fun on the April 1st Techtonic last week, broadcasting an hour of tech news from 1999. The episode page is here; click “Pop-up player” to listen. The show got the highest response, in comments and emails, of any recent Techtonic. A number of listeners were confused about what was going on, and I can’t blame them, since much of what I said was the exact opposite of what I usually say on the show. (For one thing, I praised Google.)

Let’s take a peek at what was happening 25 years ago. Leading search engines in 1999 like Yahoo and AltaVista were pursuing a faddish strategy of being “portals” – web properties that kept users on the site as long as possible, the better to extract revenue from their ad impressions, aka “eyeballs.” Search was a dismal process of navigating through cluttered interfaces full of annoying marketing pitches and irrelevant ads.

But there was a new entrant in the search landscape, a strangely-named service called “Google,” that took a very different approach. The Google homepage featured a stark, minimalist design with just a few elements: an amateurish logo, a text-entry field, and a search button. In contrast to its competitors, Google’s aim was to get users off the site, and on toward their destination, as quickly as possible.

The philosophy underlying the original Google design was, miraculously enough, exactly what I had been goading the tech industry to embrace for a couple of years at that point: a commitment to create a good experience for users, instead of primarily serving advertisers or business partners. This approach, what I later came to call “customers included,” yielded a friendly, useful website that was nothing like the cluttered portals elsewhere online.

I was convinced that creating a good user experience, as Google was doing in 1999, was not just important – it was the key to success online. Amazon, too, seemed to want to build a good experience for customers (book buyers, and as of a few months earlier, CD and DVD buyers as well). And down in Cupertino, against all odds, Apple was showing new life, releasing a customer-friendly computer called the iMac in colors like “blueberry” and “tangerine.”

Perhaps best of all as of 1999, there was no such thing as Facebook.

Now in 2024, it’s interesting to compare and contrast how the tech industry looks today. Google, Amazon, and Apple are still very much with us. But their earlier interest in delighting users has – how can I put this – reversed, flipped, flopped, and U-turned with extreme prejudice. Their new goal is protecting their respective monopolies, no matter the cost to users, artists, small businesses, democracy, or any other non-billionaire concern. In particular, Google’s descent provides a perfect example of Big Tech’s growth-at-any-cost mentality. As Cory Doctorow put it recently:

Google has a 90% search market-share. They got it the hard way: they cheated. Google spends tens of billions of dollars on payola in order to ensure that they are the default search engine behind *every* search box you encounter on every device, every service and every website. Not coincidentally, Google’s search is getting progressively, monotonically worse.

. . . Essentially, Google is saying that they don’t need to spend money on quality, because we’re all locked into using Google search. It’s cheaper to buy the default search box everywhere in the world than it is to make a product that is so good that even if we tried another search engine, we’d still prefer Google.

This strategy of self-enrichment has worked fine for the Big Tech companies, judging by their roughly two-trillion-dollar market caps (Google 1.85 T, Amazon 1.93 T, Apple 2.59 T). But now the beasts have gotten so big that they have to dream up increasingly unlikely schemes for growing further:

• Apple, having abandoned its electric car project, wants to normalize people wearing a face jail:

• Google is desperately trying to shovel AI into its search product, even though the results are laughably, or dangerously, bad – and this at the same time that it’s probably breaking copyright law in feeding YouTube transcripts into its AI training engine. Meanwhile, Google’s contempt for users was revealed in the lawsuit about Chrome’s deceptively-named Incognito Mode.

• Amazon abandoned its “Just Walk Out” technology – what the company claimed to be an AI-based store surveillance system allowing customers to shop, and leave the store, without the need for cashiers. As Gizmodo reported, the whole thing turned out to be run by poorly paid contractors in the Global South, watching videos of shoppers.

These are not headlines from dynamic, innovative, or even particularly interesting companies. Mistreating customers, exploiting workers, chasing the latest fads, hyping products with no lasting value: it’s all so unimaginative. You would think that with trillions of dollars in market value and near-infinite computing power, the world’s best-paid techies could come up with something . . . useful. Instead we get pocket-sized addiction devices, AI sludge oozing into the media, and surveillance – so much surveillance – online, offline, in public, at home, everywhere. I wonder if April 1999 was some sort of peak for digital technology, as there were genuinely intriguing possibilities afoot.

The most exciting thing I see on the horizon right now for the tech industry is the raft of antitrust suits: the DOJ is suing Apple and Google, while the FTC has filed cases against Facebook and Amazon. If we see one or more of the Big Tech companies broken up (or, miraculously, all four – oh happy day), we may finally get back to a time when companies pursue technology that is both creative and good.


P.S. We’re watching the antitrust news on the Creative Good Forum: there are threads on the Apple lawsuit, the Google lawsuit, and the Amazon lawsuit. If you join Creative Good you’ll get access to these and hundreds of other threads, and you’ll support my work on this newsletter.

P.P.S. I should also mention, because I find this so cool, that a Creative Good member posted a question this week: does anyone know an alternative to surveillance-laden Google Forms for online surveys? The Google Forms Alternatives and Survey Platforms thread is now discussing options, including a new member survey that we’re testing out. We can get off Google together. Join us.

Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see our services or join as a member
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