Last month I watched Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg continue his global apology tour. As European lawmakers ripped him to shreds, my mind wandered. I wondered what would happen if, in response to today’s increased scrutiny and government regulations, the FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) went on strike? Technology drives the global economy. Without it, would the world fall into depression and chaos as it does in Atlas Shrugged? Sadly, I think it would.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is my second favorite book of all time. It closely rivals my all-time favorite The Fountainhead, written by the same author. With that declaration, half of you have probably stopped reading. The other half are smiling broadly and muttering that you always knew there was something special about me. Ayn Rand’s philosophical belief system of Objectivism outlined in her novels is that polarizing. Folks either love it or hate it. I’m clearly in the love it camp.
The controversial core tenet of Objectivism is that the moral purpose of life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (rational self-interest). Further, it asserts that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that fully respects the individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism. So, there you have it—I’m a selfish jerk. Or let’s put it this way—one of my closest friends wants to create a T-shirt that reads, “I had a good time. And that’s all that matters.” So let’s enjoy discussing how FAANG shoulders a similar burden to Atlas.
First, the CliffsNotes
Rand sets Atlas Shrugged in a repressive United States where private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations. In defiance of the decay and pessimism around her, railroad executive Dagny Taggart seeks to rebuild the crumbling track of the Rio Norte Line to reach the last booming industrial area in the country. She and her lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden, struggle against looters and the government who control their business operations and steal their production. Meanwhile, John Galt, a mysterious inventor with the capacity to change the world, initiates a strike against these exploiters of productivity and recruits other successful industrialists to abandon their businesses and disappear from the world. Without the innovation and production of the industrialists, the world’s motor quite literally grinds to a halt. The strike culminates when Galt seizes control of the radio to broadcast his philosophy of individualism. Soon after, the looters’ regime collapses and the industrialist strikers make plans to return to the world to build a new capitalist society.
In the real world, FAANG stocks have amassed more than $3 trillion in total equity market capitalization. I can imagine a modern day version of Rand’s tale with a metaphysical Steve Jobs convincing today’s productive technology industrialists to abandon their companies and go on strike against government regulators. And for fun, I’ve drawn some loose parallels between the characters in Atlas Shrugged.
Facebook: Go Ahead, Friend Me
Mark Zuckerberg embodies hero Francisco d’Anconia’s energetic “Let’s find out. Let’s make it” approach to life. That entrepreneurial resolve was on display during Zuckerberg’s recent testimony to explain how Facebook could have allowed the private data of 87 million users to fall into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a voter profiling company that used the data to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The most popular social network in the world, Facebook had 1.45 billion active users visit Facebook daily in the first quarter!1 It’s stunning to think about the sweeping changes that social media platforms have created for human connections at all levels, including educational systems, political activities, charitable organizations and businesses. Although its content often seems silly, Facebook has created a “can’t live without it” global community. What would life be without racking up Likes?
Apple: Who Is Steve Jobs?
Just as John Galt, the inventor of a revolutionary motor, leads a world-altering strike, so did Steve Jobs’ vision of a “computer for the rest of us” spark a revolution and make Apple an icon of global business. In 1Q 2018, the company posted quarterly revenue of more than $88 billion and the biggest quarter in Apple’s history and the highest-ever revenue from a new iPhone lineup.2
Because we literally can’t live without our smartphones, Apple dominates the global market, to say nothing of our lives. I shudder to think what would happen if the Genius Bar stopped taking our reservations or Siri didn’t respond to our questions.
Amazon: Free and Same Day?
Amazon, the ecommerce titan, makes me think of Atlas’ young philosopher Ragnar Danneskjold, the industrialist who goes on strike and becomes a pirate who sinks government relief ships. While Danneskjold alone defeats the United States Navy, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has been accused by President Trump of exploiting the United States Postal Service.
Amazon has forever altered the way consumers purchase goods from books to groceries and everything in between. Net sales at Amazon reached $178 billion in 2017, a 31 percent increase from $136 billion in 2016.3 Just imagine if the Amazon customers Bezos recently described as having a “voracious appetite for a better way…where yesterday’s wow quickly becomes today’s ordinary”4 had to suddenly schlep all over town instead of having packages delivered to their door.
Netflix: Who Me, Binge Watch?
The same way Hank Rearden develops a stronger metal than steel that transforms railroad construction, Reed Hastings, Netflix’s co-founder and current CEO, pioneered more convenient entertainment. Founded in 1997, Netflix began as a company that mailed DVDs of films and TV shows to customers and introduced streaming in 2007. Today, Netflix’s strategy of investing heavily in content, both original and licensed, continues to pay off. Netflix has more than 125 million subscribers globally.5 Netflix has not only changed the way the world watches films and TV, but also feeds our on-demand appetite. A cliffhanger is tough enough to stomach, but can you imagine the disappointment if your favorite series stopped mid-season?
Google: It’s a Noun and a Verb
In Atlas Shrugged, Taggart Transcontinental, run by Dagny Taggart, is the country’s lifeline. Rail travel is central to fostering growth through expanding markets and facilitating the exchange of ideas. The same can be said for Google.
Processing more than 2 trillion searches per year worldwide, Google has become the universal medium through which most information flows into our brains.6 It’s our default setting. Google’s must-have technologies dominate, if not invade, our daily lives. In addition to providing instantaneous answers to your every question and getting you from Point A to Point B, Google knows a lot about you. If you use location tracking on your phone, Google stores your locations and creates a timeline. Google knows everything you’ve ever searched. In fact, the data Google has on you can fill millions of Word documents. So what would happen if all of it fell into the wrong hands?
A Strike’s Not So Far-Fetched
When Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, the world’s economic engine was fired by the production of copper, steel, oil and transported by railroads. As I’ve shown, technology, more specifically FAANG, drives today’s economy. These companies and their creators have amassed incredible wealth, power and influence. Their production has disrupted whole industries and fundamentally changed how we live and communicate.
Yet these innovations also have surfaced some real challenges regarding ethics, morality and privacy. While we need to thoughtfully address these privacy challenges, we must be equally careful not to discourage the creative disruption that has improved our lives and benefited our pockets and economy.
Given technology’s influence and can’t-live-without-it attributes, if today’s greatest innovators, creators and technology industrialists went on strike, I would expect an Atlas Shrugged conclusion—economic depression, societal chaos and change in government leadership.
The comedic irony in all of this is that as FAANG has become the lifeblood of the world’s economy and our daily lives, we are controlled as much as we are aided. Ayn Rand believed in the exchange of value for value. There is no question that FAANG provides all of us with incredible utility. That’s its value. Like it or not, the value we exchange with FAANG for their services is ourselves (well, at least our personal data).
Here, I think of my 78-year-old father who does not use the Internet. He doesn’t have email. When I ask him why not, he’d always respond, “They will steal my information.” He’s stuck to that claim for decades. We used to laugh at him, but lately, I’m wondering if he is ahead of his time. No question it is getting more difficult for him to function in today’s FAANG society. Imagine trying to communicate, complete a bank transaction, pay bills or schedule appointments without email or a smartphone? Most of us simply cannot enjoy life without technology and we crave more every day. But in exchange, we must offer the companies something of value. Unfortunately, that value is our information. Sorry, Dad.
1Statista, April 2018.
2Apple Reports First Quarter Results, Apple. February 1, 2018.
3Charts That Will Change Your Perspective of Amazon Prime’s Growth,” Forbes, March 4, 2018.
4Dennis Green, “Jeff Bezos finally revealed how many people pay for Amazon Prime,” Business Insider. April 18, 2018.
5Statista, December 2017.
6Danny Sullivan, “Google now handles at least 2 trillion searches per year,” Search Engine Land. May 24, 2016.