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Digital Habits Are Hard to Break

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Digital success can be as flimsy as tissue paper. Remember Groupon? BlackBerry went from the king of our pockets to nada in a hot minute. Heck, it seemed like we got bored of those internet cake videos in a week.

Even in technology, though, some habits can prove tenacious.

No one has been able to get large numbers of Americans to use something other than Google for all our burning questions. The world has settled into only two flavors of smartphones: iPhones and Androids. And in the United States, it’s tough to crack Amazon’s lock on online shopping.

It’s not necessarily because these products or services are better than the alternatives. They might be, but there are also strategic arts that explain why some companies endure. And there’s the power of inertia. Sometimes we do what we do because that’s what we do.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these habits. But we have long thought of technology as more dynamic and open to newcomers. And yet, is it?

Let’s focus on online shopping. In the United States, Amazon has at least seven times the online business of Walmart, Target, eBay or anyone else.

Amazon is really good at what it does. It sells just about every product imaginable — for good or for ill, buying is easy and stuff typically arrives reliably and fast. Prices often aren’t the cheapest, and Amazon’s website feels like it was made by 1990s robots rather than by humans with souls … but no matter.

And also there’s the power of habit that Amazon cleverly reinforces. We’re on Amazon because we’re used to it, and it just works. Merchants focus their attention on Amazon because we’re all shopping there. And the Prime shopping club is essentially an incentive to never shop anywhere else.

My colleague Dai Wakabayashi chronicled this week Google’s repeated, mostly failed efforts to make it as easy as possible for merchants to sell us stuff through Google instead. Dai told me that Google is now letting merchants list many products without paying sales commissions, and it’s making it easy for them to port over information directly from their Amazon product listings. Google is trying so hard!

Google can be a scatterbrained mess, but it’s also rich and attracts billions of eyeballs every day. If it can’t persuade Americans to shop somewhere other than Amazon, that shows us something both about Amazon’s strengths and about how tough it can be to persuade us to try something different. (Worth noting: Amazon rules online but a vast majority of our consumer spending happens in stores.)

Everyone in Silicon Valley knows the history of technology winners becoming losers in a flash, so many successful tech companies live in fear of losing it all.

One question for those of us who use technology, and for governments concerned about keeping competition healthy, is whether there’s something different that makes today’s tech powers more immovable than yesterday’s. This is at the heart of the upcoming congressional antitrust hearings involving four of America’s digital superpowers.

The bottom line is internet users like us benefit if lots of companies are afraid for their future and fighting hard for our attention and dollars. But in some corners of technology, that’s not really happening.

I’m constantly struck that lots of problems about our digital lives boil down to data: who has it, who doesn’t and how it’s interpreted and kept secret.

Let me give you one example: The Wall Street Journal and NBC News had details this week about Facebook previously shelving internal studies of possible racial bias on its site — including research that dug into why Black people appeared far more likely to have their accounts disabled for perceived violations of hate speech rules.

Facebook said in part that it worried these research projects relied on faulty data. Facebook doesn’t know if you’re Black, but it makes inferences about race from the information you engage with. Those inferences can be wrong, and Facebook said it didn’t want to rely on bad data.

Mind you, Facebook uses this same data to target advertising for companies who want to sell to Black people. The data was good enough for Facebook’s paying customers. (And, a former Facebook researcher tweeted that those probing possible bias didn’t rely only on Facebook’s inferences on race.)

The reason we know about this fight inside Facebook is that the company’s employees see data that we never will, and some of them were uncomfortable with how their bosses used or suppressed the information. There are similar tales at YouTube and at just about every internet superpower.

There are two crucial lessons here: First, we often think data is somehow pure and untainted by human bias, but that’s wrong. Information is gathered and interpreted by humans — or by computers programmed by humans — and is therefore subject to our whims and bias.

And second, we are hopelessly incapable of understanding the inner workings of the world’s biggest information machines because they see every morsel of information happening inside their walls and we see only what they choose to tell us. Data is power, and we have little of both.

  • Trying to influence the influential: George Mason University’s Global Antitrust Institute has pushed a message of restraint in antitrust enforcement to hundreds of overseas regulators and judges at lavish all-expense paid conferences in Hawaii, Tokyo and Portugal. My colleague Dai found that Google, Amazon, Qualcomm and other big tech companies helped pay for these events, which critics said presented a one-sided view of corporate regulation intended to benefit the big companies.

  • Everything is data, part deux: Another way tech companies consolidate and keep power is by harnessing data to learn about competitors and countermove against them. The Wall Street Journal wrote about Amazon appearing to use its interactions with business partners or potential ones to help develop competing products. And the tech news publication the Information wrote about Google using data from Android phones to learn about how people use rival apps.

  • My new favorite couple: I loved this New York Times article about the owners of a laundry shop in Taiwan who have become Instagram stars for posing in garments that people abandoned. “I can tell they’re elated,” said the unofficial stylist and grandson of the couple, who are in their 80s. (Check out their account for yourself. These two have got style.)

May we all have the calm and grace of this bear sitting on patio furniture. (Thanks to my colleague Charlie Warzel for spotting this gem.)

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