For the better part of the 19th Century, the British Empire and Czarist Russia (and for a while Napoleonic France) struggled for influence and control over Afghanistan and the broader Islamic Central-Asian region. Russia feared England’s growing commercial ambitions on the doorstep of the Russian Empire, while England feared that Russian control of Afghanistan would allow it to threaten India, the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire.
Although the European powers never went to war against each other directly over the region, they engaged in a decades-long series of political and diplomatic moves and counter-moves (and occasional indirect military moves) that historian came to call The Great Game.
Something like a 21st Century version of the Great Game is now playing out among today’s digital empires for control over virtual territory on the connected devices and streaming services in Americans’ homes.
Google this week announced it has blocked access to YouTube on Amazon’s Fire TV devices and the video-enabled Echo Show. That was in immediate retaliation for Amazon de-listing Google’s Nest devices from its online store, but the feud between the two pre-dates the current skirmish. Amazon has long refused to sell Google’s Chromecast devices or to support Google Cast services on Fire devices.
The latest hostilities between Amazon and Google erupted just as Amazon settled another long-running feud with Apple that had also kept Apple TV devices out of the Amazon store. This week, Apple finally approved a native Amazon Prime Video app on Apple TV, which presumably will now lead to Apple’s set-top box becoming available from Amazon.com.
Amazon had refused to sell the devices ostensibly because consumers might be “confused” by the lack of an Amazon Prime app and would send the units back, creating a logistical problem for Amazon. But no one really believed the dispute had to do with anything other than the struggle for streaming supremacy in the living room.
Google, meanwhile, is preparing to open a second front against Apple (as well as Spotify) by launching a new subscription music streaming service early next year to be called Remix. If YouTube suddenly goes dark on Apple TV you’ll know why.
Historians date the end of the Great Game to 1895 with the signing of the Pamir Boundary Protocols, which settled the border between Afghanistan and Russia. But the game didn’t really end until 1918, after Czarist Russia and the British Empire buried themselves in the trenches of the Great War.
Even then, the struggle for influence in Central Asia never really ended. It was just taken over by the new great powers of the post-Czarist Soviet Union and the United States.
Yet in all that time, the people least often consulted as to how they would like things arranged were the people of Afghanistan — an oversight for which the world continues to pay.
The stakes in the Great Streaming Game are far lower, of course. No one is getting killed, nor cultures disrupted over a set-top box. But there are echoes of the haughtiness of the 19th Century colonial empires in the behavior of today’s digital dynasties. As Amazon and Google parry and thrust, consumers are treated more as the prize to be won than an audience to be served.
It’s time for a cease fire.