Halloween has just been and gone, and since I like to get into the spirit of the times (even if we don’t ‘do’ Halloween in Australia), my thoughts have turned to large companies and their ability to do good and evil. An article he read caused Pete to buy me a copy of a tome about the British East India company, the one that started in Kolkatta and eventually ended up ruling the Indian sub-continent. This is a brief extract from Dalrymple’s book, THE ANARCHY.
“One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: loot. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late eighteenth century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain. To understand how and why it took root and flourished in so distant a landscape, one need only visit Powis Castle in the Welsh Marches.
The last hereditary Welsh prince, the memorably named Owain Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, built Powis Castle as a craggy fort in the thirteenth century; the estate was his reward for abandoning Wales to the rule of the English monarchy. But its most spectacular treasures date from a much later period of English conquest and appropriation.
For Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company (EIC) in the eighteenth century. There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display in any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed Badakhshan spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood, and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds. There are tiger’s heads set with sapphires and yellow topaz; ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings embroidered with poppies and lotuses; statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour. In pride of place stand two great war trophies taken after their owners had been defeated and killed: the palanquin Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, left behind when he fled the battlefield of Plassey, and the campaign tent of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore.”
In its day the East India Company was one of the wealthiest entities in the world, richer than many countries, and with its own armies. It was only disbanded in 1874, after the slaughter of Indians in the Indian Mutiny of 1859. I suppose it became an embarrassment to the British Crown. Certainly its ruthless trading ethos led to the Opium Wars with China and its tea was thrown into Boston Harbour by rebellious Americans.
Mind you, it wasn’t the first such mega-corporation. In India, the British East India company took over from the Dutch East India company, which retreated to its secure base in what is now Indonesia. The Dutch weren’t ‘nice’ colonial masters, either, fighting wars with the locals and stealing their assets.
In both cases, these companies spread from their tiny home lands to dominate vast swathes of territory in exotic foreign places.
There’s something about ‘companies’. People run them, of course. Enormously wealthy people, like the twelve merchants who ran the Dutch EIC. But somehow the people at the top were apparently excused the need for morals, especially when it came to dealing with the ignorant foreigners.
You can see the same sort of behaviour today, where vast mining companies like Rio Tinto or BHP exploit sites in places like South America or Papua New Guinea and leave behind dangerous tailings dams, or polluted ground water, all for the sake of investor returns.
Maybe we should be grateful that those companies are pale shadows of the mega-corporations of the past.
What’s really happened, though, is the trading giants have been replaced by the enormous techno companies. Anybody with a computer uses them every day. They’re household names. While they were at uni Larry Page and Sergey Brin invented a search engine for the newly-popular world-wide web and called it Google. The word, which is a misspelling of ‘googol’ originally invented to describe the number 1 followed by 100 zeros, has evolved into a verb – “google that question”. The search engine is referred to in jest as Doctor Google.
Then there’s Microsoft, the operating system constructed on the shoulders of the earlier DOS in Bill Gates’s garage. From there it grew tentacles that spread into personal computing and made Gates for a time the richest man in the world.
With personal computing and the internet firmly ensconced, Jeff Bezos took a risk with a little company called Amazon, which didn’t make a profit for many, many years. He’s now the richest man in the world.
Then a kid at university wrote a little system to help him connect with his friends. Zuckerberg called it Facebook.
And so it goes.
These corporations are trading companies, too. But unlike their predecessors, they don’t trade in commodities. They trade in information. Yours. And mine. That information is gold when it comes to marketing. Have you ever done one of those surveys in the hope of winning a cruise or something? They’re usually harmless looking check boxes. Which of these ranges fit your age? Which of these fit your income? What about education – primary, secondary, graduate, post-graduate? Which magazines do you read? Which of this list are you interested in?
Google, Facebook etc do a MUCH better job. You don’t get a survey, they just watch what you do online. They track which websites you visit, which ads you click on. I use Firefox for browsing. It prides itself on security and protecting your privacy so it has some protection to prevent tracking. I also use Adblock so I don’t see ads on pages unless I turn it off. It’s a standard add-on for Firefox but runs on just about any browser.
Even so, here’s what Google knows about me.
That’s an alphabetical list so there’s plenty of extra items. And if you know me at all you’ll realise a fair few are just plain wrong. Eg American Football. Even so, it knows quite a bit about me. This information is used to target advertising, a powerful tool for any company. Since I use gmail, Google makes sure I get at least links to ads that way. I do use another email product that gives me more privacy but gmail has its advantages.
Facebook collects information, too, and uses what it knows to select the ads it shows you. I use the FBPurity app which filters out ads, but before I did that, the usual fare was how to meet singles over sixty, food and cooking, fashion (ha ha), and the latest in weight loss.
I buy books from Amazon but not much else. The system has a nice algorithm which matches what I bought against what other people who also bought that book had purchased. It also records my browsing history even if I didn’t buy. It’s nice. You’re given a curated list of what you might want to read.
These days, with the ubiquitous smart phone these systems also track where you go. A friend uses Google on his phone a lot. He was able to show us via Google’s data where he’d been for the last five years or so – cities, restaurants, airports – anywhere he’d used his phone. Facebook has similar algorithms. You can ‘check in’ wherever you are.
And there’s the rub.
These applications are all useful. Google is, to my mind, still the best search engine around. I’ve tried DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you but it’s not quite as good as Google (IMO). I use Adblock plus, and my Firefox browser has settings so I can avoid being tracked to some extent. I don’t use Edge or Chrome to reduce my exposure to Microsoft and Google. But even so, I use Google maps to get around, especially overseas. Google is great for finding things like restaurants near where you are and we do buy a lot of stuff online. Facebook allows me to instantaneously keep in touch with friends and family who live thousands of miles away. Google, Amazon, and Facebook are free to use. But nothing’s really free, is it?
Please note, also, that these mega corporations are extremely wealthy. They may not employ armies (I don’t think so, anyway) but their influence is enormous. Google mail has pretty much taken over most of the other free email services like Yahoo and Hotmail, a role it shares with Microsoft’s Outlook. Amazon has taken over Goodreads and Book Depository. Some online book retailers of ebooks are still holding on by their fingernails but in many, many cases, sales via Amazon are much greater than elsewhere. That’s certainly true for me. All of these applications deliver information which can be used not only to target advertising, but also to provide a profile of individuals. There’s a reason why police look at Facebook, Twitter and other social media to help solve crimes or understand criminals.
But you’ve heard all that before.
The thing these modern corporations have in common with their historical predecessors is a lack of morality. The only thing they care about is their share-holders. People like us are just grist for the corporate mill. Unscrupulous people/governments/organisations use these platforms to create false accounts to influence public opinion by spreading libel, gossip, and false news via social media. These days that’s even more powerful than a mercenary army.
Are you scared yet?