01/17/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

Five Companies to Fear, Fondly


What, you were expecting Viacom? You were expecting Time Warner, AT&T, Disney, maybe even Walmart or the twitchy knuckle-draggers of the Tea Party or Fox News? You were thinking the CIA? Wall Street? How cute you are. And how very 2003.

Those mediocre players are, right now, just a sideshow. I'm reading a rather brilliant annual exchange, a "State of the World 2014" chat between the always illuminating sci-fi author, journalist and all-around vivid intellect Bruce Sterling, who's been tracking the tech zeitgeist since long before San Francisco's current army of pale tech bros were knee high to a first-gen iPod, and Jon Lebkowsky, a "social polymath," futurist and activist, over at famed chat spot The Well, which I'm delighted to report still exists and which, for those who don't know, is the original uber-forum for smart, adult conversation, well before anonymous commenting destroyed civilized discussion, before texting and tweeting ruined the English language, before BuzzFeed gutted deep thinking and made media for stoned 5-year-olds.

(Roundabout side note: the original founder/visionary of the SFGate website, one wonderful guy named John Coate -- who has long since moved on -- was also a co-founder of The Well. Neat.)

Sterling and Lebkowsky, they chat and they dissect and I find myself nodding and sighing in equal parts, delighted at the astute observations (Sterling's apt summation: "An extraordinary atmosphere of sullen, baffled evil, as the year opens") but also realizing how deep is the craving for, and how notable the lack of, such intelligent discussion elsewhere in various tech forums.

All we get now is snarling hipster beatdowns at ValleyWag, 10-minute gee-whiz shotgun blasts at TEDx or clumps of poorly dressed 24-year-old Stanford business drones blathering about "product" and how their new app caters perfectly to the whims of spastic 14-year-old girls (hi, SnapChat!).

Bruce and Jon point it all out, and it's sort of stunning to contemplate. Notably: Here are Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. Here are your top five gleaming, overweight leviathans of industry. With the notable exception of hoary old Microsoft, all of them were once scrappy, radical, almost cool, "don't be evil" underdogs and outlaws, breaking with bland tradition and blazing new trails in personal tech, books, music, community, you name it. And oh, how we loved them so.

And now? Have you noticed? It is no longer the same. It is 2014. Capitalism and really big money have colluded in all these companies -- and the Internet itself -- to induce a sea change so rapid it's less of a sea and more of a tsunami wrapped in Wikileaks disguised as Candy Crush Saga. The fact that no one could have really predicted it doesn't matter in the least.

Google has become utterly terrifying. Google is officially so gargantuan, so powerful, so omnipresent as to be downright surreal, buying military robots, mapping more of the universe than anyone really wanted, hiring armies of lopsided, socially inept brainiacs straight out of geek school and coddling them around San Francisco in private luxury buses, building God knows what in various candy-colored "secret labs" and trying to convince everyone that ridiculous glasses that record your every move and play Robin Thicke videos in the corner of your eye while you work are the "future" and really do "look good" and won't prevent you from ever "getting laid" or "being thought of as a completely silly, obnoxious ass."

One thing is evident: Sergey and Larry do not know what to do with all their money. When you do not know what to do with all your money, the money will figure out what to do with you. Google's money is like high fructose corn syrup: It has found its way into everything, and is slowly poisoning all of it.

Apple! Oh, my beloved Apple, still so sleek and gorgeous, hiding a giant, guilty secret that the Jobs-era magic and industry-upending innovation has been quietly replaced with a cool, militant, soulless control, a perfectly sealed spaceship from which no light escapes. The Apple Way is still beautiful, intuitive, perfectly engineered, even miraculous. But so is a switchblade.

Let us skip right by Microsoft. No one has ever loved Microsoft, or even liked them. We just tolerate. Microsoft still exists because it hard-coded itself into modern life like a birth defect; it refuses to uninstall from ten billion work computers until 2025, when every buggy old Windows machine is finally replaced with an iPad running iOS 12. Meantime, it gasps along, raking billions on legacy alone. Microsoft will be remembered poorly.

Facebook is the new guard that couldn't guard a glazed donut. Facebook still refuses to grow the f--k up and burn that ludicrous hoody. Teens are flocking away from Facebook because it only has one thing to offer, and that thing isn't all that interesting once your parents start using it, which is why Facebook bought Instagram and wishes it could buy SnapChat for four billion dollars, even though SnapChat is to human life what Grape Twizzlers are to your colon.

Everyone loves/hates Amazon. Amazon wants to drop packages on your head from the sky because Jeff Bezos thinks you're too fat, stupid and numbed out by Facebook to care to go outside, much less to a brick-and-mortar store. Jeff Bezos dreams every night that he's Steve Jobs, except he's actually Sam Walton, running a cheap empire of gross, overlit mega-warehouses of runaway consumerism. Hey, at least he seems to enjoy it.

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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...