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How 5 Tech Giants Have Become More Like Governments Than Companies


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's difficult to get jazzed about smartphones and social networks when they might be ruining the world. That's what my guest, Farhad Manjoo, writes. And he's been covering tech for 20 years. For the last three, he's written the New York Times column "State Of The Art" in which he explores how the latest tech ideas are shaping the future. Now he's writing a series about the Frightful Five. That's his name for tech giants Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, which make up half of the top 10 most valuable companies on the American stock market and which Manjoo says collectively influence just about everything else that happens in tech, as well as the rest of the global economy. He's also writing a book about the five.

Farhad Manjoo, welcome to FRESH AIR. What makes the Frightful Five frightful? What did they have to do to get on your list?

FARHAD MANJOO: So what makes them frightful, first of all, is that they are very, very big. And they play a huge role - they all play sort of huge roles in our lives kind of personally and at a kind of society-wide level. So if you live kind of a modern American life, it's impossible to, you know, to live without all of them for most people. And more than that, they sort of are being asked to do and they kind of know more about us than any corporations in history. They're more - they've become kind of more like governments than companies with the amount of money they have, with the kind of power they have over democracy in society.

We're seeing that with the way that, you know, news on Facebook and Google affected the election, with their impact on the economy, you know, the way they're disrupting kind of how retail works, with their impact on jobs and inequality. And eventually, you know, they're all working on artificial intelligence. And their technologies will affect probably most of our jobs. Most of the ways that people make money now are going to be changed by technologies that these companies make.

GROSS: Yeah. And when you say that they're like governments, they're sometimes more like governments than corporations, you point out that they're doing things that government - that our government used to do in terms of innovation. What are some examples that you're thinking of?

MANJOO: Yeah. So, you know, many of the technologies that we use today at kind of their earliest levels were started by grants for the Defense Department or just kind of basic science research. Now a lot of that is being done by these companies. Artificial intelligence is kind of the primary example. These companies are going to be building the future of transportation in the United States, in the world. You know, they're building self-driving cars. They're building drones. They're building kind of the infrastructure of the United States - the infrastructure of the next 20, 30, 40 years in ways that we used to look to kind of governments to do.

You know, Amazon has a fleet of planes, drones. It is in the kind of shipping business. It affects stores around you. Much of the kind of physical world around you is being shaped by, you know, that one company. And you can point to kind of similar ways that all the other companies are shaping the world around you in ways that are sort of huge economically and socially and that are kind of unavoidable. Like essentially - in one of my pieces, I wrote that they kind of blanket the entire society in their technology, and you can't really escape them.

GROSS: When we talk about Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, we're also talking about companies that most people don't know are owned by these five mega tech companies. So what are some examples of things that we might not associate with Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft but really are part of them?

MANJOO: Right. So Facebook, for example, also owns Instagram - one of the most popular social networks in the world. It owns WhatsApp, which is I think the most popular messaging app other than a couple that are in China. And, you know, it owns Facebook, which reaches 2 billion people a month. Google, in addition to kind of the Google search engine, it has a whole suite of mapping technologies. So there's Google Maps, but there's also Waze, another popular app for getting around. Google owns YouTube. Amazon, in addition to Amazon the store, it owns many different kind of media and publishing properties, so Audible, which has audio books. Amazon also owns Zappos the shoe company. It sort of owns this suite of different e-commerce sites.

And Amazon is sort of doing more than shopping now. One of its huge ventures is artificial intelligence. And you can personify it through their device called the Amazon Echo, which you put in your house and you talk to. It's your assistant. So, you know, these are examples of companies and products that are part of the five. And they really exemplify the way the five are going into - you know, they're really stretched far horizontally. Kind of every product or service that you might want to use, you're going to touch one of these companies.

I think Google is the most - is the perfect example of this. So what Google did a couple years ago is they switched from being Google, Google incorporated to Alphabet. So Alphabet is a holding company, many people may not have heard of it. Every time I write about Alphabet I have to very - I have to specify that we're actually talking about Google. But what Alphabet is is it's a holding company that has Google. Google is its sort of biggest property, but then it has a whole bunch of other companies you may not have heard of.

One of them is like their research lab called Google X, another is something called Google Brain, which is a company that is looking at ways to have artificial intelligence do things like medical diagnosis. There is a self-driving car company called Waymo. There's another health company called Verily. There's sort of a suite of companies that are under this alphabet umbrella related to Google. So they get all their money from Google but, you know, in the future, the plan is that Google as an entity will be just one of many different companies owned by this larger company that will, you know, affect everything that we do.

GROSS: So like the origin stories for like Google, Facebook and Apple, they're all about like a guy or a couple of guys in a garage or dorm room dreaming up these great ideas that lead to something remarkably innovative. But now you're saying now that these companies that they dreamed of are so big, they're actually in some ways suppressing innovation - the innovations of other, you know, men and women in their dorm rooms or garages dreaming up ideas. So in what ways do you think that these companies now sometimes suppress innovation?

MANJOO: This, I think, is the huge change in how the tech industry works now versus how it worked back when some of these companies were starting up. It's still possible to come out to Silicon Valley and start, you know, some new app, some - create some new piece of hardware that lots of people like and that takes the world by storm. But there's now kind of a ceiling on how successful your idea can be, and the ceiling is kind of determined by these five companies.

So one of the things that these five companies have done kind of masterfully is create these platforms that startups have to use to get to customers. So they all own these cloud-storage services. So Amazon is an example. If you want to store your media online - so, for example, all the movies that you watch on Netflix are actually stored on Amazon servers - so every time you use Netflix, Netflix is kind of paying Amazon for that kind of storage.

GROSS: I have to tell you, I was really surprised when I read that. I didn't know that.

MANJOO: Yeah. It's surprising, first of all, because they're such different companies. You wouldn't really know - you wouldn't really think that they would have that kind of connection. And then they're also competitors. Netflix makes original TV shows and so does Amazon. And so, you know, in this way, Netflix has this dependence on one of its competitors. There are lots of different examples of this though.

There - you know, all app makers have to put their apps in the Apple app store or the Google app store. And when they sell in those apps, 30 percent of that money goes to Apple or Google. They all have to advertise on Facebook or Google to get customers because that's become the way to advertise on digital platforms. And so any new app - Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, all the other sort of smaller companies online - have to go through these five to get to their customers. And what ends up happening is that other companies succeed, but always these five benefit off of that success.

GROSS: So what's an example of how one of these big companies dealt with a new startup or a new innovation that might've been competitive or appealing?

MANJOO: Yeah. The best example we've seen recently is sort of what's happened to Snapchat. So Snapchat is a very popular and really innovative idea. So Snapchat is an app where primarily teenagers, young people, send messages that disappear. So they don't last forever. You send a picture and kind of a caption to your friend. They see it for a little while, and it disappears.

And the other thing you do on this app is you make something called a story, which is like a slideshow of your day. And after a day, your friends see it and then it goes away. And these were very popular. And Facebook, which is obviously the leader in social networking, they noticed the popularity of Snap, and several times they tried to buy the company. Facebook offered Snap $3 billion, and Snap turned them down. And then earlier this year Snap went public on the stock market, and it was sort of this huge event for them. You know, this is the next step in kind of the evolution of their company.

And right after that, Facebook copied Stories, this format that's very popular on Snapchat. It copied it to essentially all of Facebook's platforms, and basically overnight the version of Stories in Instagram, in Facebook's company, became far more popular than Stories in Snapchat. And ever since then Snapchat's stock has suffered, and analysts and other people I talked to have a much kind of dimmer view of the future of that company than they did before because Facebook is gunning for them, and it's just really hard to see how they can kind of get out from under that competition.

GROSS: So you see that as an example of how one of the big companies can suppress or co-opt the innovation of a startup?

MANJOO: Yeah. It's the role of startups in the modern tech economy is to provide, you know, ideas for the big companies to kind of run with and make money from. And the other thing that the startups do is they pay a lot of money for the goods and services that the big companies provide. So half of Snapchat's revenues actually go to Google because Google hosts the actual content on Snapchat.

So in this weird way, you know, Snapchat is paying half of its revenues to Google, one of the five. It's being copied left and right by another of the five, Facebook. And it's trying to make money in the Internet ad economy, and the biggest players in the Internet ad economy are Google and Facebook. So it's also competing with them for advertisers. It's a really unenviable position to be in.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more about what my guest, Farhad Manjoo, calls the frightful five, which is Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. He writes the tech column "State Of The Art" for The New York Times, and he's doing a series on this group that he calls the frightful five. We're going to be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Farhad Manjoo, who writes about tech for The New York Times. He writes the "State Of The Art" column, which explores how the latest tech ideas are shaping the future. And he's now writing a series about big tech companies, the ones he calls the frightful five - Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

Now, you say the frightful five are so big, and yet they're not regulated by the government and they don't really fit into the standards that we measure monopolies by. Like, they don't conform to monopoly standards. So what's different about these tech companies from companies that we might consider a monopoly?

MANJOO: So one of the differences is that they're new and they're growing in new markets. And in those markets, it's sort of - in some ways it's kind of too early to call them the winners, according to regulators. And other ways, they've sort of grown really quickly, but many people see sort of more room to grow. So it's, according to regulators and others who study these markets, kind of perhaps too soon to say that they've won.

But for example, you know, Amazon has disrupted essentially all of the retail business, like, everyone from Walmart to, you know, every mom and pop shop has some fear and strategy for responding to the threat of Amazon. But if you look at kind of the size of Amazon and the scope of the entire retail business, it's not that big. It's not even half of all online sales, and it's something like 8 percent of all retail sales in the United States.

So it's growing very quickly, and it has built this infrastructure for kind of the future of commerce. It's built all these warehouses and this very efficient way of shipping goods to people. And everyone who understands e-commerce understands that, like, the future of retail in America belongs to Amazon. But at this point, it's small. And so for regulators who worry about...

GROSS: Wait. Small when measured against overall retail numbers and...

MANJOO: Right. So yes. So at this point...

GROSS: 'Cause there's nothing small about Amazon so (laughter)...

MANJOO: (Laughter) You're right.

GROSS: ...Sounds like a contradiction.

MANJOO: Yeah. But at this point it's, you know, it's about a quarter of the size of Walmart. It's growing very quickly, growing faster than than Walmart is, but it's only a quarter of the size of Walmart. It just beat out last year sales of Costco, and it is a very small percentage of overall retail.

So if you're a regulator worried about kind of monopolies, a monopoly threat, it's difficult to kind of look at traditional ways of measuring monopolies, like how much market concentration there is. Or another thing you'd worry about is, is this company big enough that it's able to kind of control prices? Well, Amazon is not that big. It's not sort of, you know, if you're worried about suppliers of goods being priced out, you really would worry about Walmart more. I mean, Walmart is sort of known for low prices and its demands on suppliers to constantly lower their prices.

And so for regulators who are worried about the dominance of a single company on a sector, Amazon presents this real puzzle for them. In fact it's such a puzzle that progressives and people on the left who've studied antitrust say that we need a whole new slate of laws and regulations to contain Amazon and to regulate it than we do now. The fundamentally kind of antitrust laws that we have today don't work for Amazon.

GROSS: So what kind of laws are they thinking about?

MANJOO: So there was this - one of the interesting things I discovered in looking at these five companies is that there's been this sea change in America in how we think about dangerous kind of corporate dominance. And before the 1980s, we were essentially a lot more strict in the United States about corporate size. And you know, the government was a lot more interventionist in preventing mergers that may affect how a market works.

And what happened in the 1980s is that, you know, a group of economists and lawyers known as the Chicago School and the Reagan administration kind of completely changed how we looked at corporate dominance in America, especially about sort of the danger, how we thought of the dangers of monopolies. And so the upshot of that is they looked mostly at price when determining whether a merger could go through, whether a company could get bigger. And they didn't look at sort of non-price effects like customer service or the effect on suppliers or the effect on the environment or adjacent industries.

If you look at price only, you won't - you're not likely to kind of stop Amazon because one of the benefits that Amazon has had is that investors sort of have been betting on kind of constant growth from Amazon, and as a result they don't really expect Amazon to be very profitable. Amazon is sort of famously not profitable at all because it reinvests everything it makes into building out more warehouses and building, you know, to getting bigger for the next year.

And so Amazon really doesn't have to raise prices. It constantly lowers prices. It has this effect on the rest of the of the retail business that results in lower prices. So if you were looking at prices alone, you would say this is a great company. It's great for customers that this company is kind of constantly lowering prices and forcing everyone else to lower prices. Under the kind of current view of antitrust, Amazon seems like a positive force rather than a negative force.

But if you go back, according to, you know, the people who want us to rethink how we do antitrust, if you go back to kind of a pre-1980s view of this structure and this market, you would see that Amazon is sort of, you know, getting its kind of corporate tentacles into a large part of the economy, into shipping, and how warehouses work and robots. Things that will allow it to dominate in the future that we're kind of just not good at regulating at this point.

GROSS: My guest is Farhad Manjoo, who writes The New York Times tech column "State Of The Art," and he's writing a series about the tech giants he calls the frightful five - Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. After we take a short break, he'll talk about the dark side of Google and smartphones and why he set up cameras in his home that record everything his family does in the living room and dining room. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Farhad Manjoo, who writes The New York Times tech column "State Of The Art" about how the latest tech ideas are shaping the future. He's now writing a series about the tech giants he calls the frightful five - Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. The frightful five are also the subject of a book he's writing. He says there's an ongoing debate about whether they should be regulated, but they're hard to regulate because they're so different from the type of corporate giants that antitrust laws were designed for.

So, you know, one of the things people are wondering, like, should this be regulated is, fake news. And, you know, Facebook and Twitter are responding to concerns about fake news and where are ads coming from. So Twitter has issued, like, new guidelines for what it's going to do. You want to run through - Twitter's not part of your frightful five, but it's still pretty big, and it's important in the context of what we're talking about. Do you want to just run through some of the things they plan on doing?

MANJOO: Yeah. Both Twitter and Facebook sort of had these - posted these guidelines earlier, which is they plan to - they say they plan to show you who's running these ads, who's sort of - who's paying for the ads and to be more transparent about other ads that those people have posted. So If you - so one of the problems that we've seen is that, you know, these kind of shady groups that are not kind of identified - you don't know where the money is coming from. You don't know what their agenda is. You don't know what other advertisements they've run.

They've been able to kind of place these ads all over Facebook and Twitter and kind of affect the news and, you know, protests and kind of just society in America under these guidelines that companies are rolling out voluntarily. But you know, there might be legislation to this effect. That will be less possible because you'll be able to - it's plausible you'll be able to kind of find out who's running these campaigns.

GROSS: In terms of Facebook, aren't they considering, like, working with fact-checking partners and labeling stories that are disputed as fake news?

MANJOO: Yeah. So one of the real difficulties about looking at these companies is that in some ways, regulating them, making them better gives them more power. So Facebook is now - so Facebook's news feed is sort of one of the most popular places for getting news in the world. It's you know - combined, more people read it than, you know, all the major newspapers in the country, the TV networks. It's extremely influential.

And right now there's very little fact-checking that Facebook does, which is, you know, what led to this proliferation of fake news and these kind of echo chambers that people have. The solution to that could be that Facebook decides it's going to partner with fact-checking companies, and perhaps it might do fact-checking itself. And Facebook would sort of be in some way the arbiter for what's right and wrong on Facebook. That may help with the fake news problem. I think it's unclear at this point.

But the kind of upshot of that is, on the other hand, you get Facebook kind of acting as something like the ministry of information for kind of every country in which it operates, where, you know, it might be able to decide, like, this is true, and this is not true. How it'll make those decisions and who it'll employ to make those decisions I think is a big question. And, like, suddenly it's going to have this power, and it's going to come about perhaps as a solution to another problem that it itself caused.

GROSS: So throughout this interview, we've been hearing a lot of your, you know, kind of criticisms about these five companies. And we should say you're hardly a technophobe. And reading about how you have your house wired (laughter) - you've got, like, everything in your house. You've got, like, all the gadgets and all the new, like, Internet of things kind of things. So let's start with, like - you wrote a column about how you've basically made your home into a reality show because your living room and - is it dining room...


GROSS: ...Are wired with cameras that - kind of like a lot of public bathrooms, when you walk in in those bathrooms, the lights turn on. When you walk out, they turn off because they have, like, motion sensors. And that's how these cameras are wired. So describe for us the setup that you have with these cameras and why you're doing it.

MANJOO: OK, so I'll describe the setup first. So they're - it's sort of in the public places of our house so, I mean, not the bedrooms - so the dining room, the living room, the kitchen.

GROSS: And not the bathroom (laughter).

MANJOO: Not the bathroom, yes. And there are a bunch of cameras. I think there are five now. And they kind of get all angles. And the reason I'm doing it is because I have two kids - young kids, 7 and 5 - almost 5. And you know, like everyone else who raises kids today, I take a lot of photos of them and a lot of videos, but I always feel like I'm missing stuff. They're extremely, like, cute. And I'm busy, and they say things, and I - and, like, I always worry that I'm just, like, missing their lives.

So I got this idea because I saw some researchers had done this. Like, psychology researchers had a videotaped their own children to kind of look at their language development. And I thought, wouldn't that be super interesting to do that, to just have memories of my kids? It took a lot of lobbying of my wife, who is just not a tech person at all. And she, you know, was worried about the privacy implications and just, like, the idea of being surveilled in your house.

Eventually I convinced her. I managed to kind of get her buy-in. We've been doing it for about a year now. And it'll be interesting, you know? It'll be really just, like, fascinating to me to watch those videos in the future and to show my kids those videos, you know, like, if my daughter who's now 5 is, like, 25 and to show her, like, what she looked like and what she said. And you know, I'd love to have memories of my own childhood from then. And I think they will appreciate that in the future.

GROSS: OK. So part of what I'm hearing here is you saying, like, you're too busy to watch your kids grow up, so you retire, you'll be able to watch the TV version (laughter).

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, I'll cop to that. It's - that is a slightly cynical way to put it, but I don't think it's wrong. I mean, I think in many instances, we do now miss out on our children. I try not to. And you know, one of the things this helps me with is I don't have to pick up my phone to take videos of them. I can sort of just be in the moment. Like, we were - I was playing video games with my son last night, and he, like, said - you know, he was just, like, very - it was just very interesting and memorable for me to watch him, like, learn how to play this video game. And I would like to see that again (laughter) at some point. And so the idea of having that is - and it just feels like I'm capturing these memories that will one day be useful.

GROSS: So have you been using those videos to settle arguments such as, no, I did tell you about this; you say I didn't, but I'm telling you I did, and now we will watch the tape and prove that I am right?

MANJOO: It has been tempting.


MANJOO: I have wanted to do that. I've just resisted 'cause I don't - especially with my wife, like, I don't want to have the video sort of come between us. I have used it as, like, a disciplinary tool with my kids. So like, I've told my son, you know, like, not to start a fight with his sister. And then, like, I've sort of slyly mentioned I will be able to see if you did, you know, if they're alone in the room or something. And that's the kind of extent that I've used it - just kind of as a warning that I can look back at what's happening.

GROSS: So my understanding is - right? - that the system that you have, the camera system - it records for a week, and then it deletes everything at the end of a week except for the things you've asked it to save.

MANJOO: Yeah, that's how it works. It's like a surveillance camera at a convenience store, you know, it has a loop.

GROSS: (Laughter) Just what everybody wants in their home.

MANJOO: Exactly. It has a loop, a seven day, you know, storage of everything you take. So when something memorable happens, something I just want to capture, I write a note to myself of the time in my phone. And then once a week, I look at the videos. I go back to that time, and then I save those videos.

GROSS: So what's a moment you're really glad you were able to preserve on video?

MANJOO: It's the small things. So it's like we're having dinner and my daughter says something completely unexpected, like, makes a joke for the first time - like, this has happened - you know, says something that makes the whole rest of the family laugh. And she's 5. And so that's like - it happens once for the first time. And it like surprised her. And she got kind of embarrassed about it. And she didn't know that, like, making everyone laugh was like a good thing, was like something that people wanted to do. She thought that we were laughing at her.

It was like a cute moment and a touching moment. And, you know, ordinarily, like, we'd just forget that. You just never have that moment. And now I have that. It's just like - dinners - really interesting things happen at dinner, I've realized after this. And just having those moments is going to be really fun in the future.

GROSS: So your kids are 7 and 4 now. Do they understand that cameras are recording them? And if so, does it make them self-conscious?

MANJOO: They do understand that cameras are recording them because I've shown them the videos. It hasn't made them self-conscious. What's actually happened is it's sort of done the opposite. It's made them performative. So my daughter will like - like if we play a song, she'll like go to the camera and sort of do a dance for the camera.

And I think this is the influence of YouTube. They watch YouTube. And on YouTube, there's, you know, kids their age performing for cameras. Like, they have their own sort of YouTube shows. And because my kids watch YouTube and have these cameras that they know sort of are recording things that can be on YouTube, it seems like they act like - they try to act like YouTube stars, like people are watching them and they're trying to cultivate an audience.

GROSS: Well, I think about how really different that was from like when I was growing up and the only people who were on video were people on TV. And there were only a few channels, so very few people were on TV. And it just seemed so, like, remarkable and impossible. And it's just amazing how like in a few decades how radically things can change. I know I'm stating the obvious, but it's no less remarkable even though it's obvious.

MANJOO: Yeah. Yeah. No, I agree with that. I mean, I really wonder what my children's sort of conception of celebrity is going to be. They follow a YouTube star who's - it's weird even calling someone a YouTube star. He has - he's, you know, I think around 10 years old. And he has a following of, I think, a few million people on YouTube. And he just does kid stuff. Like he plays and he plays with toys and plays video games. And other kids watch him do this.

We were on vacation in Hawaii, and we passed a kid that my kids swore was that kid, the sort of the YouTube star. And it was as if they had seen like, you know, the biggest celebrity. Like, they were shy. They were talking to each other about, like, whether that was him. They wanted to like go and search for him and get his autograph. It was like, you know, very cute and wondrous to see, but it was something I'd never heard of in like in my own definition would not sort of qualify as a celebrity, as someone worth meeting. But for them, he was like the biggest star of all time.

GROSS: Also interesting. (Laughter) OK. If you're just joining us, my guest is Farhad Manjoo. And he writes the "State Of The Art" column at The New York Times, which explores how the latest tech ideas are shaping the future. He's now writing a series about the tech companies he calls the Frightful Five - Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. He's also writing a book about these companies. We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Farhad Manjoo, who writes the "State Of The Art" tech column for The New York Times and is now writing a series of articles about the tech companies he calls the Frightful Five - Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

So throughout this interview, we've been hearing a lot of your, you know, kind of criticisms about these five companies. And you write, it's difficult to get jazzed about smartphones and social networks when they might be ruining the world (laughter) and that technologies that we were most excited about 10 years ago are now implicated in just about every catastrophe of the day.

MANJOO: Yeah. It is difficult for me to get excited about technology anymore. Like, you know, I write a column about technology. And like, as a result of that, I get to try out basically everything there is. And it's sort of been my dream job because I like wanted to do that. I'm interested in the future, and I'm interested in sort of what's going to happen with all this new stuff. But my sort of default position about whether this stuff is going to be good or bad in the world has changed.

So in the past, my kind of reflexive bias of a new piece of technology was - tended toward optimism. You know, I had the feeling that probably it's better than the stuff we have now, and because it's better than the stuff we have now, it's going to kind of make us more efficient or help us like connect with people. And that has to be good.

And, you know, that's the way - that's sort of the default position of, I think, everyone in Silicon Valley. Like, people who run these companies have this idea that any new piece of technology is probably going to be good. And my own view has shifted on that. I think that we should all be more skeptical of the unseen and longer-term potential dangers of these technologies before we kind of rush to embrace them.

And my default view is no longer sort of optimism. It's more - it's, like, skepticism and just a more balanced view of, like - like, this thing could be big. It could be important. But it could be important in positive ways and plausibly very negative ways and that we should consider sort of both of those things.

GROSS: What's an example of something that you initially thought was really positive and you came to see the dark side of it? I'm sure there's many examples to choose from here (laughter).

MANJOO: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, a really kind of clear example is Google, the search engine. So it just sounds - it sounds obvious that providing the world information for free on demand is going to be good. Like, throughout human history, we have been better when we learn more, when we get more information, when we produce more, when we share more. That's sort of the story behind public libraries and, like, encyclopedias and just books and printing in general.

And so you would imagine that having that be accessible to the whole world would just naturally be good. And there are many arguments that, you know - there's sort of a lot of benefit I think from having Google as a search engine and having all this information. But on the other hand, there's no doubt that Google has led to, you know - has fed the rise of conspiracy thinking in America.

Like, anyone can produce some piece of content that questions some completely valid fact about the world. They can put together a lot of information that suggests there's another point of view. Like, there are people who believe that the Earth is flat. And they can make YouTube videos about it, and they can make web pages about it. And then a lot of people start talking about it, and that starts trending on Google. Like, you will search for 9/11 or, like, whether the Earth is flat or not, and you will find at the very, you know, in prominent locations on Google this other view of the world.

And you can get sucked into that and you can start believing things that are completely not true as a result of this tool that was made to enlighten the world. So you know, that's, like, an example of, you know, something that people thought would be obviously good. And it's just much more complicated than we initially thought.

GROSS: OK, well, (laughter) you have an interesting job. Thank you so much for telling us about it.

MANJOO: Thanks so much for having me. This was really fun.

GROSS: No, my pleasure. Farhad Manjoo writes The New York Times tech column "State Of The Art" and is writing a series on the tech giants he calls the "Frightful Five: Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon." He's also writing a book about them. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "The Square," which won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

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