Bellum omnium contra omnes is Latin for “the war of all against all.” Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Hobbes used the phrase to describe the natural state of man in the absence of governmental authority. It’s also an accurate description of the U.S. economy right now, as some of its biggest corporations are left to their own devices.
Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are waging a war of all against all—a war for all of your time, all of your money, all of your worldly interactions and desires. They want to be your one indispensable partner for navigating life, and to get there, they must destroy one another. If the government doesn’t step in, the American public will become collateral damage.
The tech giants were once content to stay in their own lanes. Facebook had social media, Google had search, Amazon had e-commerce, and Apple had hardware, notably the iPhone. But Apple’s recently announced services reveal the industry-wide quest for total dominance. Apple TV+ will feature original content but also allow users to subscribe to other streaming services. Apple News+ bundles stories from hundreds of magazines and newspapers, while Apple Arcade does something similar with video games. And you can pay for it all with Apple Card, a credit card partnership with Goldman Sachs.
Apple Card, which has no late fees, gives 1 percent cash back on physical card purchases—but 2 percent on purchases made with Apple Pay, and 3 percent on purchases directly from Apple. This incentivizes users not just to get an Apple Card, but to use it on their phone and to purchase other Apple products. The overall goal is to integrate everything into Apple’s 900 million iPhones: communication, entertainment, commerce, and payment. As iPhone sales stagnate due to market saturation, Apple wants to leverage that dominance into other revenue streams.
All the Big Tech firms are attempting something similar. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said about his company’s Prime service, “Our goal … is to make sure that if you are not a Prime member, you are being irresponsible.” Amazon Prime, of course, has a streaming service to go with free shipping on its products. Amazon has its own video game service, and last month quietly signed an integration deal with Worldpay, a payment processing company, to globalize Amazon Pay. Alexa, its speaker operating system, controls nearly two-thirds of the market. Amazon even just rolled out wireless headphones for Alexa that look exactly like Apple AirPods.
Google’s own smart speaker, Home, is gaining ground, with about one-quarter of the market. Google also has phones, and last month it launched a video game streaming platform. It’s investing in local news through a partnership with McClatchy. Google Pay can be used in partnership with thousands of banks, seamlessly through the phone. And while YouTube, which Google owns, has pulled back on original programming, there are still billions of videos there to choose from.
Facebook, meanwhile, has streaming video and a video game center. Portal, a video calling device that integrates with Alexa), came out last year. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has mused about a “high-quality” news tab, not unlike Apple News+. Instagram, owned by Facebook, just announced in-app shopping. And Zuckerberg’s recent announcement of a shift to private messaging mentioned the word “payments” numerous times; he clearly wants to enable people to use Facebook to pass money among users and to pay for products.
All of these companies want to be WeChat—a Chinese app that combines messaging, video calls, social networking, games, shopping, and mobile payments—but for America, if not the world. It’s genuinely hard to pay with paper money in China, given the ubiquity of WeChat. The power of leveraging payment, commerce, communications, and entertainment makes Chinese users reliant on WeChat on a minute-by-minute basis.
And that’s what Big Tech’s war of all against all is about. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook want to make it unable for users to live without them. They will fight to assemble the biggest network with the most users, and whoever reaches that pinnacle, their device or platform will become a necessary appendage for tens of millions of Americans—or maybe all of them.
You could see this devolving into a muddled stalemate, with each company holding a sliver of users. That wouldn’t necessarily be great, either, as users get locked into their own digital buddy and its integrated services, unable to fathom extricating themselves from the tangle. In the early days of the Internet, we heard about walled gardens; this would be a walled life.
What is sacrificed for the convenience of an always-on digital life partner? Choice, for one thing: Customers will be subject to the whims of a lone digital gatekeeper. Aspiring film or video game makers will have to sign with a single dominant player to reach an audience. Will these suppliers be able to survive if a middleman like Apple takes as much as 50 percent of the revenue, as rumored with News+? Moreover, the algorithm guiding you through life could distort and pervert: We learned last week how Facebook’s ad server discriminates by race and gender, even when it’s on autopilot.
We created antitrust laws out of concern that monopoly corporations could rewrite laws, hoard profits, squeeze suppliers, and dictate the structures of daily life from their lofty perch. It may seem positive that these companies are taking on one another, with consumers poised to enjoy a surplus in any war for their attention. But when it concludes, the outcome could be a kind of digital tyranny, where participation in society demands signing up with a giant corporate overlord. At stake isn’t simply market competition, but the very notion of freedom.