The Four Horsemen of the information age

In today’s world, a handful of major multinational technology firms have an inordinate amount of influence over our lives. From consumption to communication to the very ways in which we formulate and retain information, big tech companies have a profound impact. Much of this has been good, but by no means all. In The Four, Scott Galloway delves into the dark side of the technological titans that shape our world.

The Four is essentially a history and analysis of the rise of the four wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the world today: Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. Galloway tracks their meteoric rises, as well as all the pros and cons that come with their current dominance. In the latter section of the book, he analyzes more broadly the trends and developments that have made the growth of these four companies possible. He also explores the possibility of a fifth company sweeping in and achieving true monopoly.

Galloway has a lucid and striking style, which makes the ideas immediately impactful. It’s one thing to give a list of statistics on Amazon’s marketshare dominance and poor treatment of workers. It is quite another to cast Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon in the roles of the Four Horsemen. But that is exactly what he does.

Developing this theme, he gives each “Horseman” a particular aspect. Google is oracular, possessing quasi-divine omniscience and ubiquity. Facebook replaces our need for longing and community. Apple, with its impeccable design and aesthetics, is inherently linked to sex appeal. Finally, what could serve as a better image of conspicuous consumption than Amazon?

This is the dichotomy that runs through the book. Are the Four Horsemen bringing humanity unlimited knowledge, community, glamour, and stuff? Or are they the Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

In tracing the histories of the four firms, Galloway presents a fairly balanced view. Everything is well documented and illustrated, particularly the unprecedented growth of the Four Horsemen. For example, from 2006-2016 most traditional retail companies lost stock value. Walmart was the one exception, experiencing 2% growth in that decade. In the same period, Amazon’s stock price grew a staggering 1,910%!

Passages like this throughout the book illustrate very well the true extent to which the Four Horsemen have transformed the market and the world. And they are already so powerful, that there is little short of intervention by national governments. This too may be insufficient to stop them from doing whatever they want, as each of these companies is arguably more powerful than many governments. Just one example, in 2017 when the book was published, Apple’s cash on hand was almost as great as the entire GDP of Denmark. Maybe the apocalypse is already upon us.

Now, this dramatic framework is a bit overplayed. It is also undeniably effective. Galloway’s comparison of Google to God comes off as particularly forced, although thought-provoking nevertheless. One area in which the book is lacking is that it never quite delivers on exposing the Four Horsemen’s dirty laundry. He offers up a lot of criticism, but it is somewhat surface level.

For instance, he takes Facebook to task for promoting political polarization to feed the algorithm. But he doesn’t address sufficiently the potentially deeper questions of friendship and love being turned into commodities. That is to say, bad business practice is one thing. Radically transforming human nature and society, by leveling our individuality and feeding our every whim, is quite another.

The Four by Scott Galloway is available for purchase here.

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