Google and Amazon are making us worse – CNET

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Ben Fox Rubin / CNET

Let me show you a magic trick. Make a choice – any choice. You are already online, so you might want to read the news, check your email, surf your news feed, eat something, or buy some other number of things. Now for the trick: I will name the companies that have made your choice easier. It was almost certainly Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft or Facebook.

OK, not a big trick. After all, everyone knows that these five technology giants directly or indirectly control large parts of the Internet – Amazon alone, for example, enables almost 40% of online trading in the United States and, thanks to its subsidiary Amazon, has over 23 million IP addresses for Internet services.

This online control has major consequences. Over the past week, executives from companies like Sonos and Popsockets have held an antitrust hearing on Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook. They argued that the technology giants exercise unfair control over their respective markets – excluding competitors, squeezing startups, and exploiting smaller companies to maintain their immense power and profit. Ah, monopoly: it's a story as old as the board game.

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Sonos is currently suing Google for allegedly copying its technology.

Óscar Gutierrez / CNET

But the problem goes deeper than the economy. These massive companies could actually make us worse people. They limit our choices online and intentionally make us behave in a way that benefits them. Instead of forcing us, these companies use a handful of key motivators – including convenience chiefs, not to mention "social media approval, attention, retweets, shares, and likes" – to encourage us to adopt certain behaviors. But this conditioning has an unexpected result: As we make decisions that are driven more by impulses and economic self-interest than by deep-rooted values, over time we undermine our conscience. In short, we are getting worse people.

Mapping the Amazon

The first part of a good magic trick is to create the illusion of choice. For example, when Google search exploded almost 20 years ago, the search results offered were selected based on a number of factors that essentially attempted to measure relevance. You searched for something and Google wanted to help you find it – from a credible source.

Google's goals have shifted.

If you google something now, the page will usually be filled with options that have not only been selected according to relevance, but from which companies Google paid for the advertising. David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of the software company Basecamp, pointed out in the antitrust hearing last week that companies can advertise against the names of their competitors. That said, if you use "Basecamp" from Google, the best results could actually be the websites of your direct competitors.

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James Martin / CNET

According to Heinemeier Hansson, companies have to "pay protection money" in order to be displayed correctly in customers' online search results.

Google benefits significantly from its old identity as an unbiased information provider, and it's not the only one. Amazon also exercises power over the companies that sell products through its online shop. This places strict requirements and additional fees that, in the opinion of many third-party providers on the website, damage their business. Amazon's dual role as a platform and competitor constitutes a fundamental conflict of interest that enables the technology giant to subtly (and legally) undermine direct competitors, e.g. to negotiate directly with Amazon, who can then set its own prices for its products ,

The list goes on for these technology giants: Apple's control over the App Store; Google's control over the Play Store; Facebook control over user content and privacy. Each of these platforms claims to offer a selection, but this selection is always very targeted.

Beyond advertising

OK OK. You understand it. But the use of advertising to guide customer decisions has been around for at least a century, and isn't this situation any better for consumers? Last week I drove to two stores to look for batteries that I could use in a number of Smart Shades. Neither store was in the selection I needed, so I called up my Amazon app, ordered a box (which was cheaper than both stores) and received it the next afternoon. At that moment, I was reminded that despite problematic advertising and conflicts of interest, Amazon still broadly offers an impressive customer experience. Perhaps it wins online retail so quickly because it offers the best user experience.

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It is even easier to order products from Amazon via Echo or one-click purchase.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

However, it goes beyond the conventional delimitation and control of customer selection. Amazon is able to offer this best experience, in part because it can introduce short-term policies that cost the company money to completely exclude competitors.

Suppose a "Smart Battery" theoretically costs $ 10 on the Amazon website. If Amazon wants this, assuming that the brand is on the market, it can sell an Amazon brand smart battery for $ 8 at a loss. Customers buy the cheaper option, the competition gives up, and three years later, Amazon can raise the price up to $ 12.

Amazon would probably not use such tactics on a small scale, but it already does on a larger scale. It's about buying growth. In the last quarter, Amazon spent an estimated $ 1.5 billion on shipping within 24 hours for Prime customers. Surely good for users in the short term, but the long game is to displace local convenience or grocery stores that create competition in key areas that Amazon wants to control. And Amazon can always gradually increase its Prime membership fee to close the gap created by 24-hour shipping.

Pragmatic magic

You forgot the magic trick, I can say. Which is actually part of the trick. Eventually, these companies become so ubiquitous that life without them becomes almost untenable, as reporter Kashmir Hill so thoroughly demonstrated in her Life Without the Tech Giants series. However, for those of us who use smart home technology, the problem becomes even more difficult: the voice assistants from Google and Amazon have become the new hubs for the vast majority of networked home technology. Amazon has partnered with around 9,500 companies representing over 100,000 devices.

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Amazon and Google speakers and displays anchor the smart home for many people.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

In addition, we are so busy that our short-term economic interests keep vaccinating us. We buy something from Amazon because it's faster and cheaper. We use Gmail because it is the most reliable. We use Face ID on our iPhones because it is faster than this annoying passcode. And we forget the reports that Amazon is stacking the deck, Google sharing our emails with businesses, and Apple sharing our faces with apps.

Ta-da!

However, something else is lost with this trick. Despite the widespread misunderstanding that our values ​​always determine our behavior, the opposite is often the case. We will appreciate what we do.

The problem that Amazon, Google and all other technology giants restrict our selection goes beyond the material. These companies actually train us – intentionally or unintentionally – for hours a day, primarily to respond to impulses, practicality and short-term economic self-interest, even if our lower values ​​contradict them.

After all, high percentage of people value Buying local products (that's why I drove to two stores before I ordered batteries from Amazon). We value privacy (That's why there are so many difficulties in understanding the subtle ways We lose it all the time). We value Selection (which is why so many ad blockers use and roll past advertising content on so many platforms).

However, when we are constantly faced with the choice between convenience and inconvenience, a lower price and a higher price, it goes without saying to respond to our immediate material concerns. But every time we do that, we have to make a second choice: we do maintenance That we make decisions that don't match our values, or that we only redesign our values ​​to adapt them to our behavior?

Technology giants are neither evil nor altruistic, but they are undoubtedly changing the economy, replacing markets, and seemingly monetizing everything. We shouldn't let them rewrite our values.