Aggregators exercise enormous levels of control over us, gained by following a positive feedback loop.
How control is aggregated
Here is the control aggregation cycle which aggregators benefit from to take control over us (and use it to take our money, data, efficiency and opportunities):
The outer cycle
Starting at the top left and going around the blue loop, the startup aggregator starts with an investment of time and/or money to gain an efficiency advantage over other aggregators. This often coincides with one or more new information technologies (the web, new databases, etc.) which give the startup an efficiency advantage over incumbent aggregators. (Google Search using the web to disrupt Yellow Pages directories – which was printed and delivered to your home and business – is a good example of this.
This efficiency advantage allows the startup aggregator to generate new maps which release more convenience to receiving parties. That is, they give receiving parties access to better offers and/or they conserve more receiving parties’ attention as they navigate the map. (Google Search, for instance, enabled buyers to a plumber in a small fraction of the time that it took with the Yellow Pages.)
This new level of convenience captures receiving party attention away from other maps. (People stopped reaching for the Yellow Pages directories and went to their browser to use Google instead.)
This captured attention allows the aggregator to capture our money, our data (our offers, preferences, interests, etc. which indicate our supply and demand) and eventually our opportunities (by representing their own offers on their maps to replace our own) through the methods described in Aggregators and Techno-Kleptocracy.
The captured money and data allows the aggregator to increase their efficiency in processing our offers, generating compelling maps and capturing our money, data and opportunities. That is, the aggregators can hire the best designers, programmers and economists and use their profits to buy our attention from other aggregators.
This allows the aggregator to go around and around the cycle, obtaining more efficiency, releasing more convenience, capturing more attention, capturing more money and data, reinvesting in more efficiency and so on.
How control is gained and used
Inside the cycle we can see how aggregators obtain control and use it:
- the aggregator withholds it,
- we relinquish it, and then
- the aggregator uses its control to take our money, data, opportunity and efficiency (as described in previous articles).
The mechanism by which maps withhold control and receiving parties relinquish is worth investigating. It’s the difference between convenience and efficiency.
Convenience is not efficiency
Efficiency is empowering. It’s the acquisition of tools and skills (which economists call capital) which allow individuals to achieve more with their scarce resources (their attention, time, energy and money). Efficiency provides you with an increased possibility space – a wider choice of activities and, therefore, increased autonomy.
Convenience is helpful but ultimately disempowering. It’s the provision of a limited possibility space which has been selected and provided by a more efficient party (the aggregator). This limited possibility space might create new opportunities for, but it’s limited to those chosen by the efficient party. Convenience gives the appearance of increased autonomy, but the possibility space is chosen by the efficient party (not by you) who gains a degree of control over you.
In using convenient maps, therefore, the aggregator is withholding control and we are relinquishing it to them. We are allowing them to take almost full control over our decisions, both in deciding:
- which offers which are included and excluded, and
- the choice architecture that the offers are presented to us in (which partly determine our choices).
As an example of this withholding and relinquishing control, consider what Google’s mission is (and isn’t).
Example: Google’s Mission
Here is Google’s mission:
“Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
This mission certainly sounds noble. To understand its limitations, however, we must break it down.
Firstly, Google’s mission is for Google to organize the world’s information. They’re not interested in helping you or anyone else to organize the world’s information (as this would make you independent of and a competitor of Google). Google does not, therefore, provide you with information-organizing tools – it simply provides us with information-representing results (and requires us to trust them that they processed the information faithfully). Google’s mission makes us increasingly dependent on Google and the convenience they give us (as they gain increasing efficiency in organizing the world’s information and we do not). This, in turn, gives Google significant control over us.
Secondly, it cannot be said that Google has made the world’s information ‘universally accessible’, as Google has made it accessible in only one place (from Google). Instead of making the world’s information universally accessible, it has made Google services universally accessible by:
- dominating the market for device operating systems to force device manufacturers to install Google apps on billions of phones, and
- paying Apple and Mozilla (maker of the Firefox browser) billions of dollars to ensure that Google Search the is default – and dominant – search engine on mobile.
Finally, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the breathtaking arrogance that a single firm could possibly ‘organize the world’s information’ and make it ‘universally useful’. Google has instead settled for applying a single algorithm universally (by applying a popularity-based heuristic to the entire public web). This approach has distorted and homogenized the public web by providing a single feedback loop for web publishers (the clamoring for attention at the top of Google Search). What billions of people actually need, however, are tools which give each person control over information processing such that billions of different algorithms are applied to the world’s information.
Here, then, is a far better mission:
We enable people to organize information and become independent of aggregators.
The cost of centralized control
The reason that we fell for Google’s mission is that it is so utterly dominant in its space that we cannot contemplate any competition.
While Google’s founders were brilliant, Google’s dominance is not due to that brilliance. It’s due to the control aggregation cycle (shown at the top of this page). A virtuous / vicious cycle like this concentrates small differences (the difference between Google Search and Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves, Excite and other search engines) until they become so large that no third party can compete.
And, therefore, our economy, society and information are dominated by a handful of enormously powerful aggregators. And they always have been.
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