The Year in Tech Empires

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

Big Tech got bigger-er and stronger in 2021. The empires of technology also appeared more vulnerable than ever to the forces of regulation, competition, a complicated public mood and perhaps hubris.

Yup, this is a contradiction. But this stronger-but-weaker phenomenon for Big Tech is likely to continue in 2022.

Behind this trend is the same question I keep asking in this newsletter: Are American technology superpowers including Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook invincible in a way that prior generations of corporate titans were not?

First, here’s a glimpse at ways that Big Tech reached the stratosphere in 2021. Apple, already the world’s most valuable business, is close to reaching an unimaginable stock market value of $3 trillion. That’s about eight Walmarts, or more than the value of the entire German stock market.

Amazon is so consequential in the U.S. job market that the company’s hourly pay has nudged local businesses to increase their rates, which has pushed up the paychecks of many Americans who don’t work for Amazon. When Facebook and its other apps blinked off briefly this fall, the outage showed how much of our lives and commerce rely on a single company.

This year, American tech powers were involved in U.S. drug policies, Russia’s presidential election and ethnic violence in Ethiopia. Tesla’s Elon Musk — his company is not technically considered Big Tech but its stock market value and influence make it an honorary member — was recently named Time’s Person of the Year.

This is familiar territory to many of you. Technology is one of the most consequential forces in the world, and so are the leading lights of technology. These tech empires’ combination of wealth, importance in the economy, huge numbers of users and global influence is perhaps something we’ve never seen before.

But at the same time that Big Tech grew richer and even more consequential, there are more stresses on their empires.

China’s government was anxious enough about the power of the country’s tech superstars that it cracked down on some popular digital services. In London, Brussels, Seoul, Washington, Tallahassee and — OK, just about everywhere — regulators and lawmakers are trying to erect new guardrails to control what they see as pernicious effects of tech companies’ power in our lives.

A lot of this activity might be go-nowhere bluster or ultimately prove relatively inconsequential. But when elected leaders turn against an industry, it is often a reflection of the popular mood. And it’s a good bet that they won’t turn sunny again soon.

And while the Big Tech giants remain profitable and growing, there are signs of weakness there, too. Jeff Bezos stepped aside as Amazon’s chief executive this year and some other tech bosses quit, too. Once a company gets big, it might be less fun to manage the messes.

Mark Zuckerberg seems worried about Facebook and its ability to stay relevant with young people. And big ideas in food shopping during the last two years came not from Amazon but from Instacart, fast-delivery start-ups like GoPuff and even Walmart. Americans spend more on groceries than nearly anything else, and Big Tech is largely a side show.

Feelings about tech companies and tech personalities are also growing more complicated. People often love or rely on tech, but they sometimes also feel yucky about it.

The latest obsession in the tech industry are cryptocurrency start-ups and related companies that imagine a future of the internet that would be less dominated by corporate control. This feels, in part, like a crisis of confidence about technology’s foundations from inside the machine.

Empires don’t tend to last forever, although many of the Big Tech companies have adapted to crises before and emerged even stronger. I don’t know what will happen this time. It’s hard to ignore how entrenched and influential the tech empires are. And it’s difficult to overlook how swarmed they are by doubts and challenges.

  • A little Christmas cheer: People are (mostly) receiving deliveries on time ahead of Christmas, my colleague Niraj Chokshi reports. Savvier planning, and more spending, by retailers and delivery companies helped deal with surges in packages. And more people did holiday shopping early and in stores, which eased stress on delivery networks.

  • Drones in disaster zones: The Washington Post looks at the pros and cons of small drones that are increasingly used to capture images of natural disasters, fill in for destroyed communications networks or search for people who need help. (A subscription may be required.)

  • People care passionately about something on the internet. For five seconds. Fast-moving internet fads — like sea shanties on TikTok — create a snowball effect of attention, says Rebecca Jennings, a writer for Vox. This hyperactivity of trends “makes it much more difficult for people to determine what, if anything, bears actual value.”

A group of orcas made a rare visit off Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema Beach.

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