A World of Ingratitude
By Bryan Caplan
When I started working at George Mason University, Google, Facebook, and Twitter did not exist. Amazon was around, but I’d yet to purchase anything from them. The big news in the book industry was the sudden rise of Borders and Barnes & Noble superstores; if you’d claimed that Amazon was a viable competing book outlet, most people would have just furrowed their brows at your naivete.
Now the IT giants are household names. They haven’t just transformed their own industries; they’ve transformed life itself. When I crave knowledge, I Google. When I seek consumer products, I Amazon. When I socialize, I Facebook. When I market my ideas, I Twitter. Hundreds of millions of customers around the world can say the same. If you’d described my future back in 1993, I would have laughed at your optimism… and I’m a confirmed optimist!
What would have seemed most absurd to me back in 1993, however, is that all of these companies provide tons of free services. I’ve never paid a dime to Google, Facebook, or Twitter. Even Amazon hands out tons of freebies; when I want to track down a reference, I’d rather go to Amazon than my own bookshelf. Sure, Amazon charges for physical stuff; but when I factor in the value of my time – and the agony of shopping – even the products that come in the mail are practically free. (If this seems hyperbolic, ask yourself: If you could pay Amazon its regular rate to deliver a product to your home, or drive ten miles to pick it up for free, how often would you do the former?)
Given all this, you might expect these giants of the internet age to be popular, admired, even loved. Instead, they’re drowning in resentment. How often does a pundit or politician give a speech thanking them for their astounding work? Virtually never. Instead, we live in a world where pundits bemoan the market leaders‘ alleged failures – and politicians casually threaten to regulate them – or even treat them like public utilities.
You could remind me that, “Actions speak louder than words.” People who contently use Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon far outnumber the complainers. This is a fine observation – if you want expose the pettiness and myopia of the critics. “If company X is so bad, why do they have hundreds of millions of repeat customers?” is not a decisive response to complaints, but it is a mighty response nonetheless.
So who cares what the naysayers say? Sadly, every satisfied customer of these great companies should care, because in politics, words speak louder than actions. Pundits and politicians seek fame and power by saying and doing what sounds good, even when the consequences are awful.
I got a small dose of this awfulness during my recent trip to Europe. Thanks to new privacy regulations, internet users in Europe now constantly have to click their consent over and over and over and over and over. Why? Because of some high-profile privacy scandals that pundits decried and politicians vowed to solve. Almost no one values their online privacy enough to personally shop around for extra. Yet even fewer people want to get up in public and say, “Your scandals are a tempest in a teapot. Most First Worlders wouldn’t pay $1 a day to protect ourselves from these First World problems. I doubt even most of the ‘outraged’ would pony up. Maybe the companies should do a little more to deal with privacy issues. But overall, they’ve done such a great job so far that they fully deserve the benefit of the doubt.”
When I reflect on the last two decades of the internet, I can only conclude that we live in a world of ingratitude. Stellar companies do a bang-up job, and “opinion leaders” – most of whom could barely design a webpage – desperately hunt for dark linings in the silver clouds of progress. Yes, even stellar companies aren’t perfect. But unlike pundits and politicians, they’ve earned our trust – and keep earning it every day. On the whole, I’m not just a satisfied customer. I’m an enthusiastic customer. You should be too.