Decline and Fall: What International History can teach us about Facebook, Apple and Google?

Why the Facebook and Apple empires are bound to fall is the headline for John Naughton's piece in the The Observer. The opening paragraph name checks Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers which grabbed most of its attention on publication by raising the prospect of America's decline as a great power.

The US will decline in the coming years but it will continue to be the leading power of the world in the foreseeable future.

Naughton returned to this theme of decline again ‘Even Google won't be around for ever, let alone Facebook’

Connecting the rise and fall of great powers to today's information empires like Facebook, Apple and Google is a useful device allowing us to see how these empires will decline and how new ones will emerge not out of the ashes of Facebook and Apple but as a consequence of their relative decline in the coming years.

This way of looking at Facebook allows us to break out of the "Facebook will be no more in five years' type of extreme prediction. Instead the future for Facebook might be like The Netherlands, still around, influential but not the great power it once was. So much of the rhetoric online is about services killing each other, yes it happens but most likely social networks can co-exist like nation states, each coming to terms with the shifts in their relative power.

The alternative for social networks is akin to states of old which are swallowed up by other more powerful states. For a large technology company to survive the anarchy threats to their dominance need to be acquired and in some cases, killed. This is an effort to neutralise the threat sometime borne out by paronia or as Andy Grove put it “only the paronoid survive”.

Perhaps what the information empires need is their very own version of the European Union this has allowed European states to rescue themselves from anarchy. Currently technology giants are trapped in perpetual competition with all the companies outside the big four existing in a state of anarchy just waiting to be taken over by Google or Facebook to name just two. Ironically, states fear invasion and take over while small to medium sized technology companies sometimes actively court take over (invasion) from the giant information empires.

We can over egg the comparison between the decline of states and those of our current Information Empires (Tim Wu) but I think this is a useful prism to view the shifting sands of technology in the coming years. Apple and Facebook like the America Paul Kennedy refers to in his book will experience relative decline in the coming years but will remain a leading powers in the foreseeable future. Facebook is the new Netherlands and Google like America amidst all the threats to its power remains the dominant power and will be for many years to come.

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