The Four by Scott Galloway: Overview & Key Takeaways

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Four" by Scott Galloway. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are “the four” of big tech? What makes them so? Should—and can—they be reigned in?

In The Four, Scott Galloway takes a hard look at four technology companies that dominate the modern marketplace: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. He discusses their success and their impact, how their power might be limited, who’ll be the next tech giant, and how you can make it in the economy they’ve created.

Keep reading for our overview of this important book.

The Four by Scott Galloway

In The Four, Scott Galloway argues that the success of the Four has had a profound and decidedly negative impact on our society, affecting everything from our privacy and our opportunities for career advancement to our free-market economy and the very functioning of our democracy. 

We examine the Four’s outsized influence on society at large as well as its impact on our personal lives. We divide our discussion into five main parts:

  • Part 1: The Success of the Four
  • Part 2: The Four’s Negative Impacts on Society
  • Part 3: Limiting the Outsized Power of the Four  
  • Part 4: Who Will Be the Next Tech Giant?
  • Part 5: How to Make It in the Cutthroat Economy Created by the Four

Part 1: The Success of the Four

The Four are among the largest companies in the US, and their products and services infiltrate every aspect of American life. In this section, we’ll first explore just how pervasive these companies are. Then, we’ll explore two factors that Galloway highlights as major contributors to their continuing success.

The Size and Pervasiveness of the Four

As of 2018, Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, and Facebook were the first, second, third, and fifth-largest companies in the US, respectively (the fourth was Microsoft). They all had market caps in the hundreds of billions—$888, $773, $748, and $534 billion, respectively.

The Four’s products and services infiltrate almost every aspect of American life. We use Amazon to purchase everything from garden tools to groceries to streaming movies. We communicate on Apple phones and work on Apple computers. We stay connected with friends and family on Facebook. And we rely on Google for answers to every imaginable question.

The Vision of the Four

Galloway claims that the success of the Four is due in part to the fact that they each started with a simple vision that attracted major capital investment.

For example, notes Galloway, Amazon managed to raise more than $2.1 billion in investors’ money before it broke even, relying on a simple story: “Earth’s Biggest Store.” It told this story via the business and tech media, which resulted in the market bidding Amazon’s stock higher. Backed by so much cheap capital, and therefore not reliant on profit, Amazon was able to take huge risks and sustain significant failures, allowing it to grow rapidly.

The Four’s Ability to Appeal to Our Deepest Desires

Galloway argues that, in addition to benefiting from a simple story that attracts cheap capital, the success of the Four is due to the fact that they appeal to our deepest human desires: for consumption (Amazon), procreation (Apple), love (Facebook), and God (Google).

Desire #1: Consumption

Galloway believes that our desire to buy products on Amazon can be traced back to our earliest ancestors. For 90% of human history, he explains, we were a hunter-gatherer society. Over-accumulating was a question of survival.

Desire #2: Procreation

According to Galloway, when we purchase Apple products, we’re similarly motivated by an innate need—in this case, the need to procreate. He claims that people want luxury products like Apple phones because it makes them more attractive to prospective partners. Only about 1% of the world can afford Apple products—so carrying one signals to others that you’re in an exclusive group of wealthy, successful individuals. This makes you a more desirable mate from the standpoint of natural selection.

Desire #3: Love

Facebook can help fulfill our deep need for love and relationships, says Galloway. He cites a 75-year, $20 million Harvard research study finding that the strongest indicator of happiness over a person’s lifetime is the depth and meaningfulness of their relationships. Facebook fosters those relationships by allowing us to stay connected with friends and family no matter how far away they are or how long it’s been since we’ve seen them.

Desire #4: God

Finally, Galloway equates Google to a modern god. People entrust Google with questions that they’ve never asked anyone else before: Approximately one out of every six search requests are completely novel questions. In addition, the fact that Google provides organic search results (in other words, you can’t pay to appear higher up on the list) increases user trust in the company. Users see Google as a benevolent, omnipresent part of their everyday lives.

Part 2: The Four’s Negative Impacts on Society

While the Four are hugely successful, Galloway argues that they’ve come by some of their success unfairly, harming society and the economy in the process. In this section, we’ll explore five ways in which the Four have negatively impacted our society in their fight for market dominance.

Negative Impact #1: Job Destruction

The Four destroy more jobs than they create, says Galloway. Amazon is eliminating jobs through automation, and Facebook and Google are eliminating jobs in the advertising industry. In addition, Facebook and Google’s digital advertising capabilities are also hastening the decline of print media such as newspapers and magazines, which rely on advertising to survive.

Negative Impact #2: Prioritizing Profit Over Privacy, National Security, and Democracy

Amazon infringes on our privacy by listening in on our conversations via Alexa and mining all of our consumer data. Meanwhile, Galloway says, Apple endangered our national security by refusing to comply with a court order requiring it to unlock the iPhone of a domestic terrorist who killed 14 people in a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino. But, according to Galloway, Facebook is perhaps the worst offender, engaging in actions that threaten our very democracy.

Facebook Election Scandals

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Facebook exposed the personal data of millions of Americans to Cambridge Analytica (the Trump campaign’s political consulting firm), which harvested the information without users’ knowledge. Cambridge Analytica then used the data to create behavioral profiles capable of targeting pro-Trump messages to specific voters.

After denials, Facebook later admitted to taking money from Russia to place divisive ads that were seen by hundreds of millions of users. Galloway claims that Facebook is able to get away with this behavior because of its size and power.

Facebook Polarization and Fake News

Facebook’s ad model itself leads to increased political polarization, says Galloway. Because it’s easy for Facebook to identify people on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, Facebook focuses its targeted ads on far-left liberals and far-right conservatives. This results in increased polarization because the ads further entrench people’s partisan loyalties.

This, in turn, creates a strong incentive for Facebook to allow fake news that appeals to people’s partisan loyalties to appear on its platform—because the company profits from the clicks and revenue fake news generates.

Negative Impact #3: Tax Avoidance

Galloway says the Four have the resources and political clout to take advantage of the complex tax code, finding legal loopholes that allow them to pay much less in taxes than other companies.

Negative Impact #4: Elimination of Competition

While large, powerful companies always have a competitive edge, Galloway argues that the Four wield their size and power unfairly to purposefully eliminate competitors from the market. As we’ll explore in this section, they do this in three ways:

  • Purchasing Competitors—The Four are so massive and have so much capital that they can simply acquire any competitor that poses a threat to them, at prices smaller companies could never afford.
  • Forcing Competitors Out of Business—The Four can also afford to lose money in the process of forcing their competitors out of business, argues Galloway. In addition, the Four use their money and power to prevent competitors from entering the market in the first place by constructing infrastructure so massive that smaller companies can’t compete.
  • Breaking Promises, Borrowing, and Stealing—Galloway says that the Four have managed to grow quickly in part by engaging in questionable tactics such as breaking promises, as well as borrowing and even stealing ideas from other companies or from users themselves.

Negative Impact #5: Contributing to the Decline of the Middle Class

People blame globalization and immigrants for the death of the middle class, says Galloway, but Big Tech is also responsible: The Four concentrate wealth in a small group of workers and investors and leave others behind. They create an elite tech workforce where there’s no place for the average worker.

Part 3: Limiting the Outsized Power of the Four

Galloway says that the Four’s unchecked size and power, along with their negative effects on the economy, all make the case for treating the Four like monopolies and breaking them up to allow other companies the opportunity to compete.

He claims that one way to do this is by suing the Four in antitrust lawsuits alleging that they take advantage of their outsized market power to engage in illegal, anticompetitive practices. This could force them to sell off their subsidiaries, creating smaller companies. Galloway contends that antitrust lawsuits can lead to strong markets, increased competition, and a larger middle class.

Part 4: Who Will Be the Next Tech Giant?

While Galloway believes it will be some time before the Four lose their position as leaders in the tech world, he says history demonstrates that even the most successful companies can’t stay on top forever. Who will be the next trillion-dollar tech company?

Factors Necessary to Be the Next Tech Giant

Galloway identifies eight factors that define the Four and are likely to be present in the next mega-successful company:

  • A unique product
  • The ability to attract cheap capital
  • Global
  • Likability
  • Vertical integration
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Career-boosting opportunities
  • Near a university

Potential Candidates to Be the Next Tech Giant

Galloway examines various contenders to be the next tech giant, including Alibaba, Tesla, Airbnb, and Microsoft. Ultimately, Galloway doesn’t pick a “winner,” and he notes that the next tech giant could also be a complete unknown.

Part 5: How to Make It in the Cutthroat Economy Created by the Four

The Four have fundamentally altered the job market, says Galloway—and the era of Big Tech is here to stay, regardless of who the next tech giant is. They’ve created a highly-competitive environment in which average workers have a hard time competing and succeeding. You need to be exceptional to make it in the new digital world.

Develop Personal Qualities That Foster Career Success

Galloway advocates developing four personal qualities in order to get and keep the best jobs:

  • Emotional maturity
  • Curiosity
  • Ownership/Responsibility
  • Grit

Land a Great Career

Galloway also offers advice on specific actions you can take to increase your odds of landing a great job:

  • Go to college (especially “name-brand”).
  • Live in a city.
  • Focus on your talents.
  • Go corporate.
  • Choose a job that has opportunities for promotion.
  • Consider entrepreneurship.

Advance in Your Career

Galloway recommends climbing further up the career ladder and getting ahead of the competition by doing the following:

  • Don’t try to achieve work-life balance, particularly during the first five years of your career.
  • Do PR for yourself
  • Ask for and give help.
  • Be loyal to people, not companies.
  • Stay in shape physically.
  • Take a measured approach to success and failure.
  • Be a serial monogamist in your career (give three to five years to one employer).
The Four by Scott Galloway: Overview & Key Takeaways

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Scott Galloway's "The Four" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Four summary:

  • A hard look at the success of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google
  • How The Four have had a profound and negative impact on our society
  • How to make it in the cutthroat economy created by The Four

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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