Thursday, March 25, 2010

GOOGLE AND ALL THAT BUZZ

By Philip J Cunningham

Google's departure from China appears to have been a business retreat dressed up as an ideological offensive, in which a specious argument about free speech was used as a fig-leaf to cover the company’s failure to penetrate and dominate a market of its choosing. But it also reflects outdated, Cold War style thinking.

In any case, Google.cn is gone, and while local employees and loyal users may feel lost in the lurch, it is worth considering the upside to Google's departure from the world's biggest internet market.

Google has grown so big so fast and has enriched itself to such an absurd degree that it is in danger of losing the trust of its customers. Like a bloated corporate monster careening out of control, it smashes down walls of privacy and discretion while sucking up personal data like a celestial vacuum cleaner; --scanning other people's mail is bad enough-- but it also uses that and other personal data to reap billions in advertising dollars.

It can be seen as a large, if not the largest, intelligence operation of its kind, sifting through data in real time at a rate that traditional spy agencies could only envy.

Like a shark that doesn’t know how to stop swimming, it is a non-stop eating machine, devouring competitors and chewing up kindred companies, all for what purpose? Free speech? Democratic expression? Personal freedom? That's what CEO Eric Schmidt recently told the Google Personal Democracy Forum, but speaking to advertisers, he probably came closer to the truth, saying, “We love advertising!”

Questioned about the ethics of information hoarding at a recent forum in Abu Dhabi, Schmidt snapped back, “Is there a government you would prefer to be in charge of this?”

Governments run the gamut of good and bad, but their existence is predicated on social compact to be stewards of the common good, pledged to serve and protect the people.

What can be said about a private company that scans personal information on an unprecedented level for no greater good than stockholder profit?

Simply put, we cannot believe that Google is incapable of doing wrong. Indeed their claim to do no evil has a Shakespearian air of protesting too loudly.

Even with sterling intentions and the strictest of standards, it stands to reason that this dollar-driven global information giant may turn out to be, without fully realizing it, something less than good.

To guard against such an eventuality, it is important that at least one robust market in the global information ecosystem be free of Google products, just as it's important for global agriculture to have GM-free zones. Genetically modified food, like Google Modified Information, let’s call it “GMI”, may be the wave of the future, but then again it may not.

Just as GM foodstuffs have, in a few short years, reached their way into nearly every nook and cranny of America’s food chain, Google has insinuated itself into the information chain, public and private, in a way that uproots traditional norms of decency while making itself hard to deracinate, if not indispensable.

It’s not the whiff of science behind GMO and GMI that is troubling, but the blind faith that its primary stakeholders can do no wrong. The deliberate gaming of genetic and informational ecosystems may be of some utility, but the jury is still out about systemic defects and the voracious elimination of alternatives.

Because it penetrates society quietly, insidiously and incrementally, you wake up one day, and all of a sudden, the “buzz” is everywhere. Perhaps that helps explain the lengths the masters of these dubious new technologies go to convince the public that they are not just not evil, not just innocuous, but actually good for us.

But is it not better to let one hundred wild flowers blossom, than allow agribusiness to weed out competitors until there is only one kind of crop?

Google has produced some fascinating products that are borderline addictive, but increasingly, the firm is showing itself to have cult-like characteristics, from the fanatic fan-boys who defend it, right or wrong, in every forum, to the soft-spoken co-founder Sergey Brin, whose slightest paranoid whisper can shake the organization and make the media take notice.

Google itself is a highly secretive and curiously opaque subculture, despite its almost willful come-what-may willingness to expose ordinary citizens to the public eye through aerial maps and street photos, indelible posts and silly videos, email data-mining and oops, here and there some information spills.

Although trying to understand Google from the outside is a bit like examining a black hole, judging from the limited event horizon visible to outsiders it would appear that dear leader Brin is the individual who set the self-destructive China publicity stunt into motion. Not surprisingly, the Google vision tends to reflect the Manichaean values of co-founder Brin’s idiosyncratic Soviet and American upbringing, conflating China with the USSR, even though the Cold War paradigm collapsed by the time he was in high school.

In the place of the bipolar world of Cold War certainties, we live in a more nuanced, multivalent world.

But the rise of the internet, while touted by never-say-die Cold Warriors as a tool to combat state propaganda, has inadvertently begun to serve up decentralized propaganda of its own; full of mindless mashups, advertising jingles, corporate slogans, recycled canned entertainment and decontextualized information for disunited people.

Google has been innovative, and instrumental, in making fractured conversations, selfish self-regard, multimedia overload, and fragmented text the new cool.

But there are indications that this sort of cyber Balkanization works against social harmony and shared values, and instead breaks up the population into narrow niches and dubious demographics, much as data-mining does, creating not a more humane, integrated world, but a disintegrating tower of Babel where like-minded monocrats self-entertain while exchanging like-minded tweets, texts and trills without hearing, or heeding, the voice of others.

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