Monday, February 5, 2018

Can they be broken up?

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, dealing with the suggestion of breaking up and regulating the social-media giants.

I think there’s a good case for a breakup (see the Soros article that prompted the discussion in the first place), but I don’t yet understand technically how that would work.

Would it be measures like, say, pulling YouTube (and Blogger) apart from Google?

Or breaking up Google itself?

The second one seems very hard to do, because a function like "search" is one where there are real advantages to having one giant. If you break up that search engine, does it actually function less well as a search engine?

Splitting off items like YouTube seems much more technically feasible. And maybe it would partly address the underlying concern about social-media platforms having undue social control, but it's not clear that it would.

Particularly in the case of Facebook, the undue social control comes primarily through Facebook itself, not the ancillary businesses it has acquired. And even more than Google’s search engine, it seems to me that Facebook is effective for its users in part because it is the go-to site for that sort of social sharing.

If half of the people I want to share with stay on Facebook, and the other half end up on the new spin-off, “Footbook”, which one should I be on?

I certainly can’t claim to have done anything remotely resembling thorough research on the topic, but I did read some articles calling for a breakup, and none of them explained how that would actually be carried out.

Here’s one in favor of it, but with a very different argument than Soros’s concern with tearing the social fabric. The problem this writer sees is the monopolists’ effect of slowing innovation.

And here’s a summary of responses to a discussion of breakup in a Harvard Business School publication. The social damage perpetrated by the giants seems not to be on the respondents’ radar at all, and they are basically pro-giant: these guys got where they are by being good capitalists, so punishing them for their success would be fascism.

OK, I’m ready. How do we actually carry out the breakup?


  1. I agree with you that break-up of a worldwide social network and a global search engine is impractical. I think especially Google--a bit less Facebook, and much less Twitter--are becoming something more like public utilities. Unless you are into privatizing the post office (and I know there are some economists who want that...), they are really more like social goods that need to be under public control.

  2. Also, I got this comment for your manuscript via Facebook. I guess that means they really should be internationalized for the public good:

    "Helga Ingeborg Vierich: I have a comment for Karl on his manuscript - the book he is working on and put an introduction on The Dance of the Hippo. He asked for feedback. But I find the site will not publish my comment for some reason. Could you perhaps get it to him?

    This is it:

    I have just started to read this, and I think I understand where you are going here. I have a question, though. Economies are indeed like ecosystems in that they are both Complex Adaptive Systems; okays far.. but economic systems are also part of cultural behaviour. Cultures are the complex adaptive systems - consisting of learned and shared behaviour and knowledge that many creatures acquire through intergenerational as well as intersubjective transmission (demonstration, instruction..). In humans, this system of adaptation is supplemental information coded biological by the genes, but both cultural and genetic information is “heritable” in that cultural information complexes tend to persist over time. The economy, thus, is part of the adaptive strategy; and it seems to be the first to change when ecological and other environmental alterations - the independent variables in the system - occur. For example an environment like a coastal plain might be occasionally swept by water during Tsunamis in a region of frequent earthquake activity. The economic system might adapt by developing systems of surplus production and food storage in upland locations, and the institutions and conceptual aspects of the culture will not only accommodate the need for higher labour inputs and infrastructure for this storage, but also establish regular instruction communicating what to do if ground tremors occur: eg. immediately seek high ground and and assemble at known locations where food and shelter have been prepared. The culture will, thus, invest in a cascade of adaptive shifts in behaviour - these are the dependent variables: the periodic vulnerability - even if it only occurs once or twice in a generation - of a culture in that particular environment -induces adaption. This does not just effect the local ecology around the community, nor just it’s economy, it is also processes by the whole of the culture."