With knid permission from Soren at Zen Haven
Are today’s captains of industry – the wealthy and powerful figures who control the digital universe – any different from the ruthless corporate figures of the past?
Here’s an interesting fact:
10 of the people on Forbes magazine’s tally of the world’s 100 richest billionaires made their money from computer and/or network technology.
Gates is followed by Larry Ellison, boss of Oracle, with $36bn, and Michael Bloomberg with $22bn.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin – co-founders of Google – occupy joint 24th place with $18.7bn each.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon is No 26 with $18.4bn while the newly enriched Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook sits at No 35 with £17.5bn.
Michael Dell, founder of the eponymous computer manufacturer, is at No 41 with $15.9bn while Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, is three places lower on $15.7bn and Paul Allen – co-founder of Microsoft – brings up the rear at No 48 with a mere $14.2bn.
Steve Jobs, who was worth about $9bn when he died, doesn’t even figure.
What’s striking about this is not just the staggering wealth that these people have managed to squeeze out of what are, after all, just binary digits (ones and zeros), but how recent are the origins of their good fortunes.
Mark Zuckerberg, for example, went from zero to $17.5bn in less than eight years. Microsoft – the company that has propelled Gates, Ballmer and Allen into the Forbes pantheon – dates only from 1975.
Oracle was founded in 1977. Bloomberg turned a $10m redundancy cheque from Salomon Brothers into his personal money-pump in 1982. Dell started making computers in his university dorm in 1984. Bezos launched Amazon with his own savings in 1995. Brin and Page turned their PhD research into a company called Google in 1998. And Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004.
For some of these people, great wealth is correlated with significant power. Once Microsoft captured the market for PC operating systems and office software, Bill Gates and co ruthlessly leveraged their monopoly to eliminate rivals (remember Netscape?) and dictate pricing.
So we got a world where you could have any kind of computer you wanted, provided it ran Microsoft Windows. In the era when the PC was the computer, Bill Gates was king because he controlled the PC.
But although Microsoft remains a significant force, its power waned ascomputing moved from the PC to the network – and therefore to the people and companies who dominate that.
Step forward the Google boys, who have the power to render any website virtually invisible, because if their algorithms decide not to index a site then effectively it ceases to exist – at least in cyberspace.
Their computers also read our mail and store our documents. Google dominates the online advertising business. The company’s founders say grandly that their mission is “to organise the world’s information” – and they mean it.
They have already digitised a significant amount of the world’s printed books – although they are not yet authorised to make many of them available online. And Google’s cars have photographed every street in the industrialised world.
Meanwhile, in another part of the jungle, Amazon’s Bezos is not just vaporising bricks-and-mortar bookstores; he’s also on his way to becoming the world’s biggest publisher. And he’s already the world’s largest online retailer – the Walmart of the web. In social networking Mark Zuckerberg has cunningly inserted himself (via his hardware and software) into every online communication that passes between his 900 million subscribers, to the point where Facebook probably knows that two people are about to have an affair before they do.
And because of the nature of networks, if we’re not careful we could wind up with a series of winners who took all: one global bookstore; one social network; one search engine; one online multimedia store and so on.
There was a time when the power exercised by computer and internetcompanies seemed a matter of relatively esoteric concern. But as digital technology began to pervade our daily lives, the boundary between the “real” world (“meatspace”, as geeks used to call it) and cyberspace began to blur.
What happened in the latter suddenly mattered in the former – and not just in Tunisia and Egypt either.
Think of the way Steve Jobs’s creation – Apple – exercises such dominance over online music, smartphones and tablet computers. Or ponder what Google and Facebook now know about our lives, loves and obsessions. Or what Amazon knows about our consumption patterns.
The implication is that cyberpower has correlates in the real world, which means that it’s time we had a really good look at those who wield it. What are these masters of the digital universe really like? What are their values and their politics? And are they any different from the corporate moguls of the past?
More: > Here