“Tech exceptionalism” is the sin of thinking that the normal rules don’t apply to technology.
The idea that you can lose money on every transaction but make it up with scale (looking at you, Uber)? Pure tech exceptionalism. The idea that you can take an unjust system like racist policing practices and fix it with technology? Exceptionalism. The idea that tech itself can’t be racist because computers are just doing math, and math can’t be racist? Utter exceptionalism.
Tech critics are usually good at pointing out tech exceptionalism when they see it, but there’s one tech exceptionalist blind spot. There’s one place where tech boosters and critics come together to sing the same song.
Both tech’s biggest boosters and its most savage critics agree that tech leaders—the Zuckerbergs, Jobses, Bezoses, Musks, Gateses, Brins, and Pages—are brilliant. Now, the boosters will tell you that these men are good geniuses whose singular vision and leadership have transformed the world, while the critics will tell you that these are evil geniuses whose singular vision and leadership have transformed the world … for the worse.
But one thing they all agree on: These guys are geniuses.
I get it. The empires our tech bro overlords built are some of the most valuable, influential companies in human history. They have bigger budgets than many nations. Their users outnumber the populations of any nation on Earth.
What’s more, it wasn’t always thus. Prior to the mid-2000s, tech was a dynamic, chaotic roil of new startups that rose to prominence and became household names in a few short years, only to be vanquished just as they were peaking, when a new company entered the market and toppled them.
Somehow, these new giants—the companies that have, in the words of New Zealand software developer Tom Eastman, transformed the internet into “a group of five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four”—interrupted that cycle of “disruption.” They didn’t just get big, they stayed big, and then they got bigger.
How did these tech companies succeed in maintaining the dominance that so many of their predecessors failed to attain? Was it their vision? Was it their leadership?
If tech were led by exceptional geniuses whose singular vision made it impossible to unseat them, then you’d expect that the structure of the tech industry itself would be exceptional. That is, you’d expect that tech’s mass-extinction event, which turned the wild and wooly web into a few giant websites, was unique to tech, driven by those storied geniuses.
But that’s not the case at all. Nearly every industry in the world looks like the tech industry: dominated by a handful of giant companies that emerged out of a cataclysmic, 40-year die-off of smaller firms which either failed or were folded into the surviving giants.
Here’s a partial list of concentrated industries from the Open Markets Institute—industries where between one and five companies account for the vast majority of business: pharmaceuticals, health insurers, appliances, athletic shoes, defense contractors, book publishing, booze, drug stores, office supplies, eyeglasses, LCD glass, glass bottles, vitamin C, car parts, bottle caps, airlines, railroads, mattresses, Lasik lasers, cowboy boots, and candy.
If tech’s consolidation is down to the exceptional genius of its leaders, then they are part of a bumper crop of exceptional geniuses who all managed to rise to prominence in their respective firms and then steer them into positions where they crushed, bought, or sidelined all their competitors over the past 40 years or so.