Tech Giants' Scale Risks Stifling Innovation

Published in Online Spin, August 31st, 2018

I’ve managed to reduce my Facebook usage by around 80%.

Three tactics:

One: Delete the Facebook and Messenger apps from your phone.

Two: If you visit Facebook on the computer, log out when you’re done. Every time.

Three: Change your phone display to grayscale.

Don’t get me wrong -- I'm no saint. I’ve spent countless hours mindlessly scrolling through the News Feed, scared of failing to Like or comment on something important. I simply had to know, even though I can only ever know the tiniest sliver of a fraction of a percent of what is going on, and the more time I spend trying to stay up to date on babies and memes and you-won’t-believe-what-happened-nexts, the less time I spend being creative and productive and trying to have a positive impact in this world.

But if I want to connect with people online socially, I still use Facebook. Just like if I want to search for something, I use Google, and if I want to buy something, I check Amazon — even though I live in New Zealand and it takes 2.4 light years to ship me a book.

I do my best to escape the gravitational pull of these organizations, but the best I can do is approach the event horizon; it is virtually impossible to escape.

Some people say this is great news. Why would you want to escape? If you can connect with your family and friends all over the world for free, if you can find the answer to any question your 5-year-old comes up with, no matter how random (“Why is water wet?”), if you can buy anything you could ever want for practically nothing and have it delivered nearly instantaneously (unless you live in New Zealand), why would you ever want anything different?

These things are indeed wondrous, and we are indeed lucky to have them. But it’s impossible to answer the question of why we would want something different unless we know what different is.

We didn’t know we wanted Facebook until we had it. We didn’t know we wanted Google until we had it. We didn’t know we wanted Amazon until we had it.

Steve Jobs said people didn’t know what they wanted until he showed it to them. Henry Ford said that if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. We rely on innovation to open our eyes to possibilities we never could have imagined.

Which is why an environment that stifles innovation is a dangerous one. An environment comprising a small handful of enormous companies, each representing a huge percentage of their chosen market, makes it harder and harder for the next Henry Ford or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg to emerge.

This week, The Economist published a story about why startups are leaving Silicon Valley: “Startups, particularly those in the consumer-internet business, increasingly struggle to attract capital in the shadow of Alphabet, Apple, Facebook et al… Alphabet and Facebook pay their employees so generously that startups can struggle to attract talent (the median salary at Facebook is $240,000). When the chances of startup success are even less certain and the payoffs not so very different from a steady job at one of the giants, dynamism suffers.”

What would the world look like if 100,000 additional people per year were pursuing their dreams? What wonders would be unleashed if a million additional people per year were transforming their ideas into reality?

Scale is good. It allows for incredible outcomes that are simply achievable by small players. But too much scale is stifling. If we want a world of continuous innovation, we need to create space for new ideas to breathe, a space where 1,000, or 100,000, or a million flowers can bloom.

Kaila Colbin