Ian Bogost reports on what some people think of as a big moment in the history of international capitalism:
At the close of trading this Monday, the top five global companies by market capitalization were all U.S. tech companies: Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.
Bloomberg, which reported on the apparent milestone, insisted that this “tech sweep” is unprecedented, even during the dot-com boom. Back in 2011, for example, Exxon and Shell held two of the top spots, and Apple was the only tech company in the top five. In 2006, Microsoft held the only slot—the others were in energy, banking, and manufacture. But things have changed. “Your new tech overlords,” Bloomberg christened the five.
And then Bogost zeroes in on what’s peculiar about this report:
But what makes a company a technology company, anyway? In their discussion of overlords, Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide and Rani Molla explain that “Non-tech titans like Exxon and GE have slipped a bit” in top valuations. Think about that claim for a minute, and reflect on its absurdity: Exxon uses enormous machinery to extract the remains of living creatures from geological antiquity from deep beneath the earth. Then it uses other enormous machinery to refine and distribute that material globally. For its part, GE makes almost everything — from light bulbs to medical imaging devices to wind turbines to locomotives to jet engines.
Isn’t it strange to call Facebook, a company that makes websites and mobile apps a “technology” company, but to deny that moniker to firms that make diesel trains, oil-drilling platforms, and airplane engines?
I’m reminded here of a comment the great mathematician G. H. Hardy once made to C. P. Snow: “Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition that doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd.”
As Bogost points out, the financial world uses “technology” to mean “computer technology.” But, he also argues, this is not only nonsensical, it’s misleading. Try depriving yourself of the word “technology” to describe those companies and things start looking a little different. “Almost all of Google’s and Facebook’s revenue, for example, comes from advertising; by that measure, there’s an argument that those firms are really Media industry companies, with a focus on Broadcasting and Entertainment.” Amazon is a retailer. Among those Big Five only Apple and Microsoft are computing companies, and they are so in rather different ways, since Microsoft makes most of its money from software, Apple from hardware.
Here’s a useful habit to cultivate: Notice whenever people are leaning hard on a particular word or phrase, making it do a lot of work. Then try to formulate what they’re saying without using that terminology. The results can be illuminating.