Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Lynn's departure from New America has been viewed, largely, as illustrating the influence a powerful company like Google can have on scholarly discourse. How do you see the news?
What we know for sure is that people around the world are becoming more conscious of the particular way that technology mega-corporations are working to change the legal and media landscape.
Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post so that his technology platform monolith has a voice. In Google, we have a situation where the world's largest technology platform is also the world's largest advertising platform. Things start to get messy. Google's also the nation's biggest lobbyist in DC.
Does that mean Google is evil? Not necessarily. But their influence is very big. It wouldn't be surprising to see organizations of all kinds accommodating the needs of one of these companies or another, whether it's a publishing house accommodating Amazon books or New America accommodating Google's lobbying arm.
Does this illustrate the kind of power the large tech companies have? Is this a trend that will continue?
From the period of chartered monopolies in the 1300s until very recently, the power of a monopoly was maintained by law. You lobbied for certain laws in order to get charters or monopolize a certain industry. You'd fight antitrust laws. Now, monopolies are exercised through code, rather than just law. Through manipulation of the landscape itself.
That's what we started to realize in the late '90s when Microsoft had both the operating system and the browser, and people began to say, "Oh, there's this other way of doing monopolies now." But it also amplifies and accelerates the process for a monopoly to happen. Amazon happened really, really fast. And their platform gives them the ability. As soon as they bought Whole Foods, everybody goes, "Oh my gosh," and the stocks of other grocery stores went down.
These are all digitally-accelerated phenomena. The worry is different. And the main reason is that these companies are, themselves, communications companies and publishers. It's not just a phone company or an electric company or a cement company. They're also the platforms we use to interact. It becomes bigger.
The New America article is not that big of a deal, in itself. The reason it's a story is that it's emblematic of a new kind of monopoly. If anything, these sorts of foundations, and the kinds of publishing they do, were the last safeguard. The last seemingly untouched, unsullied place.
Everything else is owned by one or the other of the same five companies. If there's so little money out there that's not Bezos, Schmidt, Murdoch, Zuckerberg ... if they're the only ones left to keep these organizations alive, the space for genuine, independent work is getting smaller and smaller.
For me, it's troubling that scholarly thought is influenced by corporate money, which I had always thought was separate.
It's totally not. Look how much effort and manpower major universities spend on development and fundraising. Who are they appealing to for that money, and how does that influence their spending and research agendas? Eighty families own half of the money on the planet right now. Where are you going to go for money? One of those families. This is a side effect of wealth consolidation.