To US eyes, putting up with low cancer survival rates is the real madness
We live in a small world. There are two degrees of separation between you and someone who attended the concert in Las Vegas last Sunday at which Stephen Paddock killed 58 people. That is because you are reading my column and my son’s nanny was there with a group of her friends. (Luckily, she left before the shooting began, and none of her friends was hit. Spattered with the blood of others, but physically unscathed.)
One of many pathologies of a small world is groupthink. I arrived in London shortly after the Las Vegas massacre. I encountered unanimity, right across the political spectrum. Americans are crazy, I was repeatedly told. How can you live in a country where such things are possible?
Now it is true that Americans have a gun problem, but it is not quite the problem most Britons imagine. As The Times pointed out last week, more Americans have died from guns in their own country since 1968 than have perished in combat in all the nation’s wars (including the Civil War). On average between 2011 and 2014, guns were linked to 34,000 deaths a year in the United States.
But such figures are deceptive. More than half those 34,000 deaths were the results of suicide, not homicide. All last week the media published exaggerated statistics on mass shootings (“477 days. 521 mass shootings”— The New York Times). Defining a mass shooting as a single attack in a public place in which four or more victims were indiscriminately killed, I count 91 mass shootings across the country since 1982, in which 760 people have died.
That is still an unacceptable death toll, to be sure. Also troubling is the trend in the direction of more frequent massacres and larger death tolls. Yet we need to be clear about the nature of the problem. It is not, as many Britons seem to imagine, that America is full of gun-toting trigger-happy maniacs.
The country is No 1 in the world for firearms per capita, with 88.8 guns per 100 people. But three-quarters of Americans don’t own a gun. Just 3% own half the guns. Paddock possessed 42 firearms, 23 of which he took to Las Vegas. He was one of a very small proportion of the American population that takes advantage of flaws in US law to amass large numbers of guns.
This state of affairs is not what the authors of the second amendment had in mind when it was adopted in 1791. Read it for yourself: “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In United States v Miller (1939), the Supreme Court ruled that the second amendment did not protect weapons that did not have a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”. That is plainly the correct reading of the text.
Yet in District of Columbia v Heller (2008) the Supreme Court held that the amendment protects an individual right to possess and carry firearms. This was surely wrong. The second amendment was intended only to ensure an adequately armed citizen militia for reasons of national defence. It was not designed so that an individual citizen could accumulate a vast private arsenal. No doubt most of the people who accumulate assault rifles are like stamp collectors: they just like to look at them. But if just one gun collector a year goes on a killing spree, the law is an ass.
The practical case for tighter gun controls is also clear. First, there is a precedent for a federal ban on assault weapons: the 1994 law that was allowed to expire in 2004 and could have been revived in 2012 after the Sandy Hook primary school massacre. In many states there are no mandatory background checks for gun sales because of a loophole that exempts sales at gun fairs. Another indefensible loophole is that machineguns — automatic weapons — made before 1986 can legally be owned. Close to 200,000 of those are believed to be in circulation.
Will anything change in the wake of the Vegas massacre? At most, bump stocks, which effectively convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones, will be banned. Otherwise I expect little to change. Gun control has for years been a partisan issue, favoured by Democrats, opposed by Republicans. Not only do the latter control the White House and Congress, they also hold 34 governorships. The Democrats have undivided control of only six states, all of which already have restrictive gun laws.
Does this mean Americans are nuts? Let’s keep this in perspective. Of the 2,596,993 total deaths in the US in 2013, 1.3% were related to firearms. For some reason the people who say, “You are more likely to be killed in a road accident than by a terrorist,” never say: “You are more likely to be killed in a road accident than by a firearm.” In the US both statements are true.
Yes, we in Britain are far less likely to die from gunshot wounds than our American cousins. Generally speaking, according to World Health Organisation statistics for 2015, the American rate of mortality from interpersonal violence is four times higher than the British. Americans are also between two and three times more likely to die from drug abuse, poisoning or intentional injury. The American way of death is violent. This is another way of saying that the US is more like Latin America than western Europe. But you knew that from the movies, didn’t you?
In any case, we Britons have our own idiosyncrasies when it comes to death. In 2015 we were five times more likely than Americans to die of the lung cancer mesothelioma, nearly three times as likely to die of oesophageal cancer, twice as likely to die of stomach cancer and nearly twice as likely to die of prostate and bladder cancer.
These figures are in line with a variety of studies showing Britain is not the best place in the developed world to be diagnosed with cancer. Between 2000 and 2007, for example, the adult five-year survival rates for patients diagnosed with nine types of cancer were lower in the UK than the European average. Meanwhile, according to a 2012 study, cancer patients in the US “lived longer than in the EU, and these survival gains were not due to more aggressive screening of US patients”, but to the higher expenditure that characterises the American system. Yet the NHS is an institution so beloved by British voters that woe betide the politician who does not pledge to preserve it.
True, a growing number of Americans are persuaded by “single-payer” enthusiasts such as the Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders. In the late 1990s only 40% of Americans favoured a single-payer, government-run system like the NHS; today the figure has risen to 53%. But most Republican voters don’t want to know.
Maybe, as Hillary Clinton said, Republicans really are just a basket of deplorables who are nuts to prefer the National Rifle Association to the National Health Service. However, when I tell conservative Americans how British friends have been treated after a cancer diagnosis — one who had a breast tumour was told to take her usual summer holiday as there was a queue for treatment — here’s what they say: Brits are crazy. How can you live in a country where such things are possible?
We do indeed live in a small world. And yet we all — Americans and Britons alike — still struggle to see ourselves as others see us.
Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power is published by Allen Lane
Russians assumed to be acting for Vladimir Putin used Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook to influence the US election AP
The hyperconnected world was not supposed to be like this. In May, Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, told The New York Times: “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.”
In September Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, acknowledged that the company’s online tools had allowed advertisers to target self- described “Jew haters”. “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way,” she admitted, “and that is on us.”
Surprise! The men and women who built the internet-based social networks that have so transformed our lives thought everything would be awesome if only we could all be connected. Speaking at Harvard’s degree ceremony in May, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, looked back on his undergraduate ambition to “connect the whole world”. “This idea was so clear to us,” he recalled, “that all people want to connect . . . My hope was never to build a company, but to make an impact.”
Facebook certainly made an impact last year, but not quite the impact the young Zuckerberg had in mind in his Harvard dorm. A committed believer in globalisation who tends to wear his liberal politics on his T-shirt sleeve, Zuckerberg is reeling. Not only did the masterminds behind the Brexit and Trump campaigns successfully use Facebook advertising to hone and target their ultimately victorious campaign messages; worse, the Russian government appears to have used Facebook in the same way, seeking to depress voter support for Hillary Clinton. Worse still, neo-Nazis seem to have been using the social network to spread their own distinctive brand of hate.
Yet the architects of the biggest social networks to have existed should not have been surprised. If he had studied history at Harvard rather than psychology and computer science, Zuckerberg might have foreseen the ways in which Facebook and its ilk would be used and abused.
Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther sent his critique of corrupt church practices as a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz. It is not wholly clear if Luther also nailed a copy to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg, but it scarcely matters. Thanks to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, that mode of publishing had been superseded.
Before 1517 was out, versions of Luther’s original Latin text had been printed in Basel, Leipzig and Nuremberg. By the time Luther was officially condemned as a heretic by the Edict of Worms in 1521, his writings were all over German-speaking Europe. In the course of the 16th century, German printers produced almost 5,000 editions of Luther’s works.
Luther’s vision was utopian. Just as Zuckerberg today dreams of creating a single “global community”, so Luther believed that his Reformation would produce a “priesthood of all believers”, all reading the Bible, all in a direct relationship to the one, true God.
It didn’t turn out that way. The Reformation unleashed a wave of religious revolt against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As it spread from reform-minded clergymen and scholars to urban elites to illiterate peasants, it threw first Germany and then all of northwestern Europe into turmoil.
In 1524 a full-blown peasants’ revolt broke out. By 1531 there were enough Protestant princes to form an alliance (the Schmalkaldic League) against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Although defeated, the Protestants were powerful enough to preserve the Reformation in a patchwork of territories.
Religious conflict erupted again in the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that turned central Europe into a charnel house. Especially in northwestern Europe — in England, Scotland and the Dutch Republic — it proved impossible to re-establish Roman Catholicism, even when Rome turned the technologies and networking strategy of the Reformation against it, in addition to the more traditional array of cruel tortures and punishments that had long been the church’s forte.
The global impact of the internet has few analogues in history better than the impact of printing on 16th-century Europe. The personal computer and smartphone have empowered networks as much as the pamphlet and the book did in Luther’s time.
Indeed, the trajectories for the production and price of PCs in America between 1977 and 2004 are remarkably similar to the trajectories for the production and price of printed books in England from 1490 to 1630.
In the era of the Reformation and thereafter, connectivity was enhanced exponentially by rising literacy, so that a growing share of the population was able to access printed literature of all kinds, rather than having to rely on orators and preachers to convey new ideas to them.
There are three major differences between our networked age and the era that followed the advent of European printing. First, and most obviously, our networking revolution is much faster and more geographically extensive than the wave of revolutions unleashed by the German printing press.
In a far shorter space of time than it took for 84% of the world’s adults to become literate, a remarkably large proportion of humanity has gained access to the internet. As recently as 1998 only about 2% of the world’s population were online. Today the proportion is two in five. The pace of change is roughly an order of magnitude faster than in the post-Gutenberg period: what took centuries after 1490 took just decades after 1990.
Google started life in a garage in Menlo Park, California, in 1998. Today it has the capacity to process more than 4.2bn search requests every day. In 2005 YouTube was a start-up in a room above a pizzeria in San Mateo. Today it allows people to watch 8.8bn videos a day. Facebook was dreamt up at Harvard just over a decade ago. Today it has more than 2bn users who log on at least once a month.
The scale of Facebook’s success is especially staggering. Two-thirds of American adults are Facebook users. Just under half get their news from Facebook.
It used to be said that there were six degrees of separation between any two individuals on the planet — say, between yourself and Monica Lewinsky. On Facebook there are just 3.57 degrees of separation, meaning that any two of the 2bn Facebook users can get in touch by taking fewer than four steps through the network. The world is indeed connected as never before. We are all friends of friends of friends of friends.
Second, the distributional consequences of our revolution are quite different from those of the early-modern revolution. Early modern Europe was not an ideal place to enforce intellectual property rights, which in those days existed only when technologies could be secretively monopolised by a guild. The printing press created no billionaires.
Johannes Gutenberg was not Bill Gates (indeed, by 1456 he was effectively bankrupt). Moreover, only a subset of the media made possible by the printing press — the newspapers and magazines invented in the 18th century — sought to make money from advertising, whereas all the most important ones made possible by the internet do. Few people foresaw that these giant networks would be so profoundly inegalitarian.
To be sure, innovation has driven down the costs of information technology. Globally, the costs of computing and digital storage fell at annual rates of, respectively, 33% and 38% between 1992 and 2012. Everyone has benefited from that. However, oligopolies have developed in the realms of both hardware and software, as well as service provision and wireless networks.
The ownership of the world’s electronic network is extraordinarily concentrated. Google (or rather the renamed parent company, Alphabet Inc) is worth $669bn by market capitalisation. About 16% of its shares, worth around $106bn, are owned by its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The market capitalisation of Facebook is approaching $500bn; 475 million of the shares, worth about $81bn, are owned by its T-shirt-loving founder.
Unlike in the past, there are now two kinds of people in the world: those who own and run the networks, and those who merely use them.
Third, the printing press had the effect of disrupting religious life in western Christendom before it disrupted anything else. By contrast, the internet began by disrupting commerce; only very recently did it begin to disrupt politics, and it has really disrupted only one religion, namely Islam.
The political disruption reached a climax last year, when social networks helped to topple David Cameron in the Brexit referendum and to defeat Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election.
In the American case, a number of networks were operating. There was the grassroots network of support that the Trump campaign built — and that built itself — on the platforms of Facebook and Twitter. These were the “forgotten” men and women who turned out on November 8 to defeat the “failed and corrupt political establishment” that Trump’s opponent was said to personify.
A role was also played by the jihadist network, as the Isis-affiliated terror attacks during the election year lent credibility to Trump’s pledges to “strip out the support networks for radical Islam” and to ban Muslim immigration.
Yet in two respects there is a clear similarity between our time and the revolutionary period that followed the advent of printing. Like the printing press, modern information technology is transforming not only the market — most recently, by facilitating the sharing of cars and homes — but also the public sphere. Never before have so many people been connected in an instantly responsive network through which “memes” can spread even more rapidly than natural viruses.
But the notion that taking the whole world online would create a utopia of netizens, all equal in cyber-space, was always a fantasy — as much a delusion as Luther’s vision of a “priesthood of all believers”. The reality is that the global network has become a transmission mechanism for all kinds of manias and panics, just as the combination of printing and literacy for a time increased the prevalence of millenarian sects and witch crazes. The cruelties of Isis seem less idiosyncratic when compared with those of some governments and sects in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Second, our time is seeing an erosion of territorial sovereignty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was plunged into a series of religious wars. Spain and France tried by fair means and foul to bring England back to the Roman Catholic fold. As late as 1745, a French-backed army of Scottish Highlanders invaded England with a view to restoring the old faith in the British Isles.
In the 21st century, we see a similar phenomenon of escalating intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. There was, after all, a further network involved in the US election of 2016, and that was Russia’s intelligence network.
It is clear that the Russian government did its utmost to maximise the damage to Clinton’s reputation stemming from her and her campaign’s sloppy email security, using WikiLeaks as the conduit through which stolen documents were passed to the western media. Russian hackers and trolls last year posed a threat to American democracy similar to the one that Jesuit priests posed to the English Reformation: a threat from within sponsored from without.
Leave aside the question of whether or not the Russian interference decided the election in favour of Trump; suffice to say it helped him, though both fake and real news damaging to Clinton was also disseminated without Russia’s involvement. Leave aside, too, the as yet unresolved questions of how many members of the Trump campaign were complicit in the Russian operation, and how much they knew.
The critical point is Facebook itself may have decided the outcome of an election that would have gone the other way if about 40,000 voters in just three states had chosen Clinton over Trump.
No, it wasn’t meant to be this way. This was not what Silicon Valley envisaged when it set out to build “a planet where everything is connected” — the motto of Eric Schmidt’s foundation.
But then Luther didn’t set out to cause 130 years of bloody religious warfare either.
© Niall Ferguson 2017
Extracted from The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson, to be published on Thursday by Allen Lane at £25
“All terrorists are politely reminded that this is London and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on. Thank you.” It was hard not to smile at the messages such as this that appeared online in the wake of Khalid Masood’s murderous rampage through Westminster. How ineffably British. The stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on.
Yet I found myself increasingly uneasy as details of Masood’s life began to come out. Adrian Elms was his real name. A former neighbour recalled a “polite, shy” and “quite portly man” who liked gardening and playing with his children. Then we read of the racism he suffered in “the quiet Sussex village of Northiam”, where he was one of only two non-white male residents.
Wait. First, the guy was a violent criminal, who was jailed twice for knife attacks. Second, his path from crime to jihad was a familiar one: the conversion to Islam, probably in jail, the spell in Saudi Arabia, the relocation to Luton, home town of several jailed extremists. Third, another familiar story: known to the authorities for “violent extremism”, but no longer under surveillance.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was doubtless right when he said last year that the threat of terrorist attacks is “part and parcel of living in a big city”. But this is not the time to downplay what is happening in Britain.
Yes, I know, the victims of Islamist terrorism in Britain have been far fewer than the victims of Irish republican terrorism. And yet, as Hannah Stuart shows in a meticulous new study for the Henry Jackson Society, there have been 135 terrorism-related cases since 1998, resulting in 264 convictions. The frequency of terrorism offences has roughly doubled since 2010.
As Stuart shows, the perpetrators of terrorist offences are mostly male and “homegrown”. Converts are disproportionately involved (they make up 16% of offenders but fewer than 4% of British Muslims as a whole). Nearly two-fifths of terrorism offenders have police records. And “lone wolf” attacks are growing more common.
Let’s not be parochial. The world is in the grip of an epidemic of Islamist terrorism. Of the past 16 years, the worst was 2014, with 93 countries experiencing attacks and close to 33,000 people killed. The second-worst was 2015, with more than 29,000 victims. In that year four radical Islamic groups were responsible for three-quarters of all deaths from terrorism: Isis, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Although Muslim-majority countries suffer the most from jihadist violence, the West is increasingly under attack. There were 64 Isis-affiliated attacks in western countries in 2015, including the massacres in Paris (130 killed) and Orlando (49 killed). Thus far, Britain has got off lightly.
No doubt there will be whining about security lapses. But the constant vigilance of our security services has prevented many more people from being killed in the past dozen years. In 2014-15, there were more terrorism-related arrests in Britain than in any year since 2000. Yet even this intensified effort cannot pre-empt every jihadist.
Why not? The answer lies in the transformation of Islamism — I use the clumsy term to distinguish the political ideology from the religion — that we have seen since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
Isis was quite differently organised from al-Qaeda. In the Middle East it aspired to become a territorial state. But in the West it created a kind of open-source network of jihadists, attracting the most ardent to come and join it in Mosul and Raqqa, and encouraging others to carry out crude, indiscriminate attacks in western cities.
The term “lone wolf” is a misleading one. No one becomes a jihadist all by himself, just by watching beheading videos. As my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, argues in a powerful new report, jihad is always preceded by dawa — the process of non-violent but toxic radicalisation that transforms the petty criminal into a zealot.
The network of dawa takes many different forms. In the UK a key role used to be played by the organisation al-Muhajiroun (the Emigrants), which the jailed Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary led before his arrest. But there are many less visible organisations — Islamic centres with shadowy imams — busily spreading the mind poison.
To see how this poison works, read the recent Policy Exchange study of Britain’s Muslim communities, Unsettled Belonging. At first sight, the news is good. Altogether, 90% of those surveyed condemned terrorism. Most British Muslims, we read, have “fundamentally secular interests and priorities”. Only 7% said they did not feel a strong sense of belonging to the UK.
But read on. Nearly half said they did not want to “fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life”, preferring some separation in “schooling and laws”. Asked whether they would support the introduction of sharia, 43% said yes. And 1 in 10 British Muslims oppose the prohibition of tutoring that “promotes extreme views or is deemed incompatible with fundamental British values”.
Worst of all, nearly a third (31%) of those surveyed believe that the American government was responsible for 9/11. Get this: “More people claimed that the Jews were behind these attacks (7%) than said it was the work of al-Qaeda (4%).”
After 7/7, the government’s anti-terrorism strategy was designed to “Prevent” people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 even placed a duty on the police, prisons, local authorities, schools and universities to stop people “being drawn into terrorism”. When she was home secretary, Theresa May vowed “systematically [to] confront and challenge extremist ideology”. For this she was denounced by the usual suspects, notably the Muslim Council of Britain, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Cage and the Islamic Human Rights Commission. But the reality is that Prevent has not prevented enough.
The problem is that it’s very hard to stop a network such as this one flourishing when it can operate even in jails. Figures published by the Ministry of Justice show the number of Muslims in prison (for all types of offence) more than doubled to 12,255 between 2004 and 2014. One in seven inmates in England and Wales are Muslim. Guess what goes on inside. Clue: it’s not like an episode of Porridge.
This problem isn’t going away. Ask the French. About 8% of the French population is Muslim, which is roughly the proportion the Pew Research Centre projects it will be in Britain by 2030. The French authorities estimate that they have 11,400 radical Islamists. And about 60% to 70% of the French prison population is Muslim.
If you haven’t read Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, about an Islamist takeover of France, now might be a good time. Alternatively, you can “drink tea and jolly well carry on” — though it’s hard to do that when your head’s in the sand.
Only in China could there already be a museum of internet finance. Though most Britons have barely adopted the term “fintech”, online banking is old hat in Beijing. On Thursday I toured the museum with its founder, Wang Wei, who delighted in showing me exhibits such as a bitcoin cash machine. The cryptocurrency is eight years old; in today’s China that’s ancient enough to belong in a glass display case.
Some time soon, Europe needs a similarly designed museum of political idiocy. In its glass cases I would like to exhibit stuffed specimens of politicians who have so hopelessly failed to understand the the information technology revolution that began in California in the 1970s and has now almost completely taken over the world.
Prime candidates for the taxidermist’s knife are the members of the Commons home affairs committee. On Tuesday they laid into Google, Facebook and Twitter for not doing enough to censor the web on their behalf. Yvette Cooper, their chairwoman, complained that Facebook had failed to take down a page with the title “Ban Islam”. As she put it: “We need you to do more and to have more social responsibility to protect people.”
Another possible exhibit in the museum of political idiocy is Germany’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, who unveiled a draft law last week that would impose fines of up to €50m (£43m) on social networks that failed to delete “hate speech” or “fake news”. He said: “Too little illegal content is being deleted and it’s not being deleted sufficiently quickly.”
If these people want censorship, let them get on with it — I know some people in China who can help — but arguing that Google and Facebook should do the censoring is nuts. As if these companies were not already mighty enough, European politicians want to give them the power to limit free expression.
Best of all is the revelation that government advertising has ended up on jihadist and white supremacist websites. The news that the Department for International Development and the Metropolitan police have been spending taxpayers’ money in this undiscriminating way just strikes me as more evidence of European naivety.
There are three essential points to understand about the IT revolution. First, it was almost entirely a US-based achievement, albeit with contributions from computer scientists who came to Silicon Valley from all over the world and Asian manufacturers who drove down the costs of hardware.
Most of the big breakthroughs in software that made mass personal computing possible were made in America — think Microsoft and Apple. The internet, too, was made in America. Online retail was made by Amazon, founded in 1994 in Seattle. Online search based on the PageRank algorithm: made by Google, founded in 1996, its first office a garage in Menlo Park, California. Online social networking for one and all: made by Facebook, founded in 2004 at Harvard. YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), the iPhone (2007), Uber (2009), Snapchat (2011) . . . You get the idea.
Point two: the most important of these companies are now mind-blowingly dominant. In Facebook’s little red book, written to indoctrinate (sorry, train) employees, it is written: “The quick shall inherit the earth.” Mark Zuckerberg has certainly inherited quite a chunk of this planet. His social network now has 1.23bn active daily users.
Google and Facebook are predicted to increase their combined share of all digital advertising this year to 60%. Google has 78% of US search advertising. Facebook has 39% of online display advertising. Yes, there really are a lot of credulous people managing ad budgets these days. “But, Mr Google, my ad ended up on a pro-Isis website!” “Bummer, dude.”
Third point: this dominance translates into crazy money. Facebook will make $16bn (£13bn) from display advertising this year. The business is valued today at about $400bn, including a $30bn cash pile. That equips Zuckerberg to buy up pretty much whatever comes along that he likes the look of — as he did with Instagram, for example.
It is an amazing state of affairs. Consider the functions these companies perform. Google is essentially a vast global library; it’s where we go to look things up. Amazon is a vast global bazaar, where more and more of us go to shop. And Facebook is a vast global club. The various networking functions these companies perform are not new; it’s just that technology has made the networks both enormous and very fast. The more interesting difference, however, is that in the past libraries and social clubs did not make money from advertising. They were funded out of donations or subscriptions or taxes.
In other words, the truly revolutionary fact is that our global library and our global club are both making money from advertising, and that the more we tell them about ourselves, the more effective the advertising becomes, sending us off to Jeff Bezos’s bazaar with increasing frequency. Not for nothing is Fang the investors’ acronym for Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. These guys really have got their teeth into us.
Confronted with this American network revolution, the rest of the world had two options: capitulate or compete. The Europeans chose the former. You will look in vain for a European search engine, giant online retailer or social network. The US Fang has been well and truly sunk into the EU.
The Chinese, by contrast, opted to compete. By fair means and foul, they made life difficult for the Americans. And they encouraged their own entrepreneurs to build businesses that rival the giants of Silicon Valley. The acronym of the moment in Beijing is Bat: Baidu (the biggest search engine), Alibaba (Jack Ma’s answer to Amazon) and Tencent (which is the nearest thing to Facebook). These companies are much more than clones of their US counterparts; each has been innovative in its own right. A good example is Tencent’s ubiquitous messaging app WeChat, which, by using QR codes to allow users to exchange contact details, is fast destroying the business card.
Needless to say, Silicon Valley gnashes its fangs at being shut out of the vast Chinese market. Zuckerberg has not yet given up hope, doing interviews in Mandarin and even jogging through the smog of Tiananmen Square. The recent experience of Uber cannot encourage him. Last year it ran up the white flag in China, accepting that it could not beat the homegrown ride-sharing business Didi Chuxing. Cue more gnashing.
I have to say I admire how China took on Silicon Valley and won. It was not only smart economically but smart politically too. In Beijing, Big Brother now has the big data he needs to keep very close tabs on Chinese netizens. And good luck to the US National Security Agency as it tries to get through the Great Firewall of China.
Museums are where history’s victors display their trophies. What I learnt last week is that China may be winning the latest battle in the IT wars: to take not just banking but money itself online. And if you don’t believe me, I’ll bet you one bitcoin — or £840 if you only accept old money.