Tech Platforms and the Knowledge Problem

Frank Pasquale at American Affairs: “Friedrich von Hayek, the preeminent theorist of laissez-faire, called the “knowledge problem” an insuperable barrier to central planning. Knowledge about the price of supplies and labor, and consumers’ ability and willingness to pay, is so scattered and protean that even the wisest authorities cannot access all of it. No person knows everything about how goods and services in an economy should be priced. No central decision-maker can grasp the idiosyncratic preferences, values, and purchasing power of millions of individuals. That kind of knowledge, Hayek said, is distributed.

In an era of artificial intelligence and mass surveillance, however, the possibility of central planning has reemerged—this time in the form of massive firms. Having logged and analyzed billions of transactions, Amazon knows intimate details about all its customers and suppliers. It can carefully calibrate screen displays to herd buyers toward certain products or shopping practices, or to copy sellers with its own, cheaper, in-house offerings. Mark Zuckerberg aspires to omniscience of consumer desires, by profiling nearly everyone on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, and then leveraging that data trove to track users across the web and into the real world (via mobile usage and device fingerprinting). You don’t even have to use any of those apps to end up in Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp files—profiles can be assigned to you. Google’s “database of intentions” is legendary, and antitrust authorities around the world have looked with increasing alarm at its ability to squeeze out rivals from search results once it gains an interest in their lines of business. Google knows not merely what consumers are searching for, but also what other businesses are searching, buying, emailing, planning—a truly unparalleled matching of data-processing capacity to raw communication flows.

Nor is this logic limited to the online context. Concentration is paying dividends for the largest banks (widely assumed to be too big to fail), and major health insurers (now squeezing and expanding the medical supply chain like an accordion). Like the digital giants, these finance and insurance firms not only act as middlemen, taking a cut of transactions, but also aspire to capitalize on the knowledge they have gained from monitoring customers and providers in order to supplant them and directly provide services and investment. If it succeeds, the CVS-Aetna merger betokens intense corporate consolidations that will see more vertical integration of insurers, providers, and a baroque series of middlemen (from pharmaceutical benefit managers to group purchasing organizations) into gargantuan health providers. A CVS doctor may eventually refer a patient to a CVS hospital for a CVS surgery, to be followed up by home health care workers employed by CVS who bring CVS pharmaceuticals—allcovered by a CVS/Aetna insurance plan, which might penalize the patient for using any providers outside the CVS network. While such a panoptic firm may sound dystopian, it is a logical outgrowth of health services researchers’ enthusiasm for “integrated delivery systems,” which are supposed to provide “care coordination” and “wraparound services” more efficiently than America’s current, fragmented health care system.

The rise of powerful intermediaries like search engines and insurers may seem like the next logical step in the development of capitalism. But a growing chorus of critics questions the size and scope of leading firms in these fields. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance highlights Amazon’s manipulation of both law and contracts to accumulate unfair advantages. International antitrust authorities have taken Google down a peg, questioning the company’s aggressive use of its search engine and Android operating system to promote its own services (and demote rivals). They also question why Google and Facebook have for years been acquiring companies at a pace of more than two per month. Consumer advocates complain about manipulative advertising. Finance scholars lambaste megabanks for taking advantage of the implicit subsidies that too-big-to-fail status confers….(More)”.