Original Article Published on TheAtlantic.com
At the close of trading this Monday, the top five global companies by market capitalization were all U.S. tech companies: Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.
Bloomberg, which reported on the apparent milestone, insisted that this “tech sweep” is unprecedented, even during the dot-com boom. Back in 2011, for example, Exxon and Shell held two of the top spots, and Apple was the only tech company in the top five. In 2006, Microsoft held the only slot—the others were in energy, banking, and manufacture. But things have changed. “Your new tech overlords,” Bloomberg christened the five.
But what makes a company a technology company, anyway? In their discussion of overlords, Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide and Rani Molla explain that “Non-tech titans like Exxon and GE have slipped a bit” in top valuations. Think about that claim for a minute, and reflect on its absurdity: Exxon uses enormous machinery to extract the remains of living creatures from geological antiquity from deep beneath the earth. Then it uses other enormous machinery to refine and distribute that material globally. For its part, GE makes almost everything—from light bulbs to medical imaging devices to wind turbines to locomotives to jet engines.
Isn’t it strange to call Facebook, a company that makes websites and mobile apps a “technology” company, but to deny that moniker to firms that make diesel trains, oil-drilling platforms, and airplane engines?
Part of the problem has to do with the private language of finance. Markets segment companies by industry, and analysts track specific sectors and subsectors. Exxon is an energy industry stock, while GE straddles energy, transportation, public utility, healthcare, and finance. The “technology” in the technology sector is really synecdoche for “computer technology.” Companies in that sector deal in software, semiconductors, hardware manufacturing, peripherals, data processing services, digital advertising, and so forth.