Short

Google me, Google me not

the dominated (whose most extreme example is the slave) is, at least tendentially, without a name. Even if, during his lifetime and in limited arenas among those close to him, a sequence of phonemes serves to designate him, this sequence is insufficient to compose a name Luc Boltanski, On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation, p.153

A fortnight ago Eric Schmidt took to the stage in Cambridge to preach hellfire and brimstone. He opened by describing a dystopian society shut off from the world – one whose population is kept in ignorance by an all-powerful state. This was hell, we were supposed to think. It was the kind of place whose nameless inhabitants must be known only by a number. It was, of course, North Korea.

Schmidt has recently returned from the country after one of multiple visits to quasi-dystopian internet black-spots around the world. His journey was a pilgrimage fit for a prophet of “connectivity”, the religion he has been both practising and preaching with the 20% of work time that each of Google’s employees is able to allocate to projects of personal importance. In the first five minutes of his talk, at breathless pace, he zoomed in on Mexico’s drug-blooded streets, post-civil-war Chad and the Great Firewall of China. No matter where he took us, increased connectivity would be an overwhelming force for good, even factoring in the benefit that the “bad guys” hiding in caves would derive from the virtual world. Presumably in none of these places did Schmidt suffer the ignominy of someone not knowing his name, even in the Google-less hell of the DPRK.

But as smoothly as his sermon was delivered, his performance was unsettling. True to the role Schmidt was performing, his speech was riddled with concepts he clearly took to be polar opposites: the good and the bad, the democratic and the autocratic, the virtual and the physical.

It must be reassuring to see the world in black and white – in digital ones and zeros. To see through Google lenses that divide action into the binaries of good and evil, legal and illegal. Schmidt’s answer to a question about Google’s controversial tax arrangements was that the company would pay whatever the law said it should pay. Google, Schmidt implied, behaved just as any law-abiding citizen would; its actions were on the right side of the law.

But of course the law really isn’t the same for everyone – and that’s what makes Google’s tax avoidance strategies seem outrageous. If you’re not a member of the international technical elite like Eric Schmidt, the law constrains you in ways that it doesn’t constrain Google: legality is no obstacle when you can simply change the law you are subject to by changing the jurisdiction in which you conduct your business. The world may seem to be divided into legal and illegal in the same way for everyone, everywhere, but in practice we all have a different relationship to the rules.

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What members of a dominant class implicitly share, in the form of common knowledge that they cannot avow to others – which they can scarcely avow to themselves – is, on the one hand, that it is indispensable that there should be rules – law, procedures, norms, standards, regulations and so forth; and, on the other, that one can do nothing really profitable (translated into their language: ‘really useful’), that one simply cannot act, in an uncertain world, if one follows these rules On Critique, p.146

The corporate reality that Google’s motto “Don’t be evil” reveals is precisely the self-deception that the morally wrong course of action is evident to everyone. That such a straightforward categorical imperative can serve as a clear guide. Google’s actions, of course, betray the truth that it’s not that simple – that widely accepted norms may have to be skirted around, re-articulated or reinvented in order to get done what you feel must be done. What’s worrying is the evident process of contamination followed by purification: the hand infringes widely-accepted norms; the brain reinterprets these norms to legitimate the hand’s actions; and the mouth, Schmidt, declares with genuine conviction that the hand has followed the same norms as everyone else.

Maybe we shouldn’t care. This is, after all, how big corporations operate. Maybe we should draw the head’s attention to the hand’s actions, whilst also drawing the attention of those outside the corporation – politicians, lawyers – who are capable of restraining the hand (or cutting it off altogether). But maybe it’s less the norm-bending that should worry us and more the attitude towards it.

Schmidt’s apparent failure to acknowledge that actually some norms do have to be bent or broken to achieve what we must, or what we should, can only reinforce the company’s ignorance about its own impact on those who can’t so easily bend or break norms. Of course, the norms of the internet are presented as norms of openness and civility, of data-sharing and enlightened progress. They are norms that no-one should need or want to bend or break in order to benefit. This isn’t all bluff: there are many aspects of the internet’s architecture – its accessibility, its ungovernability – that make it a genuinely public space of the kind that, in the democratic, Western “physical” world (as Schmidt repeatedly referred to it), has been closed up to the point where its re-occupation has become an almost revolutionary symbolic gesture.

But assuming that these utopian properties of the virtual will bring about a world with less disadvantage is misguided. It’s an assumption that rests on another of Schmidt’s binaries: that of the physical and the virtual. There is no great firewall between the two, as Schmidt apparently likes to think. The norms according to which the offline world operates – and all the privacy, privilege and poverty of the physical that they create – impinge on the virtual every time a human interacts with a computer. Being able to bend or break these norms of the physical world is, and will increasingly be, crucial to getting ahead in Google’s virtual utopia. Our offline relationship to the rules will, contrary to Schmidt’s faith, inevitably help determine how much we benefit from Google’s online revolution.

The most worrying moment in Schmidt’s talk was a simple observation that unwittingly illustrated this point. As the virtual increases its share of the real, Schmidt told us, the networks that crystallise around us will depend more and more on the form that our online identity takes. Scare stories about facebook warning that online identities can harm our job prospects or our offline relationships are familiar. But at a simpler level, the likelihood that prospective employers, collaborators, will even be able to find us, or to stumble upon us, will be determined significantly by our online presence.

In the future that Schmidt prophesied, a future that is really already present, we will have to be search-engine optimised. Because the uniqueness of our name will determine how high up a Google search ranking we come. The value of our name will become the value of a number.

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… it is likely that learning a ‘relativist’ relationship to the rules is facilitated today by the experience of members of the dominant class, whose formation and professional activity have, on account of their international character, had the effect of leading them to pursue their objectives by exploiting variegated systems of often contradictory rules On Critique, p.146

Parents who, like Schmidt, are either part of or close to the technical elite who know the rules according to which our virtual world will be run – parents who, like Schmidt, have recognised the importance of search-engine-optimising ourselves – will begin to bend and change the norms of naming. Instead of following naming conventions – the ancestral, the biblical, the affective – that have become the norm over centuries, they will, at least in part, choose names for their children based on the Google ranking they correspond to. Through the sequence of phonemes serving to designate the sons and daughters of the global elite, numbers will start to be visible.

Weird and wonderful monikers will be dragged up from obscure passages in inaccessible literature or from rarely-spoken foreign languages. Google employees’ Finnegans and Philemons will have no problem in the school playground alongside their colleagues’ Brünnhildes and Parzivals. Among a global elite whose knowledge, and more importantly foreknowledge, of the workings of search engines is shared, the norms can easily be broken and remade. Since they and their children live out their lives in the same physical locations, embedded in the same physical networks as technicians like Schmidt who set the rules of the new virtual world, their norm-breaking will not be singled out as madness. Their offspring are unlikely to become the subject of ridicule. And all because they share a particular relationship to the rules of the virtual: they are the ones who make them.

Advantage doesn’t come to these virtual rule-setters because they set the rules to their advantage, but simply because their relationship to the rules allows them to pre-empt what they will have to do to get ahead in the brave new world they are creating. The norms they must discard to do so are easy to shed when everyone around them – or simply everyone as they see it – is doing the same. It’s this perfectly innocent and unmalicious collusion that allows social theorist Luc Boltanski to see the Schmidts of this world as part of a new dominant class.

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[the critic of existing norms] asks to be followed by others, real individuals, who are her contemporaries. But this also contains a risk, for, if she finds no one to follow her; if a group is not formed around the cause whose advocate she makes herself, her words and deeds can be disqualified as eccentricity or madness (paranoia) On Critique, p.100

And what about parents unlike Schmidt? Parents who have not given or been to a Cambridge lecture about virtual identity, or whose children’s friends’ parents are unaware of the way in which Google shapes our lives according to our names? Will they find it as easy to break the norms of the physical world that govern naming – norms enforced by the fear of ridicule? Will they be prepared to sacrifice the childhood happiness of their Finnegan so that he has better employment prospects when he is thirty?

Unless they spend their lives among others who will do the same, it will surely be much more difficult for parents who don’t have Schmidt’s offline “connectivity” to search-engine-optimise their offspring – at least to begin with. Unable to justify their eccentric naming practices by appeal to common knowledge within their existing social networks about Google page ranking, they will have to fight much harder to bend existing norms into alignment with a virtual future. The “physical” communities in which they spend their time – communities detached from the technicians who set the rules of the new virtual world – and the norms they uphold will constrain them while the already-connected global elite use their existing non-virtual springboard to leap ahead. Undoubtedly the leap ahead has already begun, years ago, when families like Schmidt’s brought their children into a world whose future contours they could read in the zeroes and ones of the then-nascent virtual world.

It’s rhetorically tempting to paint this as a dystopian future where names are reduced to numbers, where a small number of technocrats have the resources to enrich themselves while the majority are left behind: a Google-governed North Korea. Of course this would be a wild exaggeration: a name is unlikely to cast your child into near-slavery, and I have only chosen the example of naming because it simply illustrates the problem with Schmidt’s thinking. But recognising the dystopian potential of connectivity – and specifically the way in which the virtual world may exacerbate existing inequalities in the physical world – is a crucial responsibility of the companies that rule from Silicon Valley.

Schmidt did make one reassuring remark towards the end of his talk about Google’s responsibility to its employees. Employees could no longer be attracted by high salaries alone, Schmidt said; it was also important to ensure that the values of the company reflected their values – that the interests of shareholders weren’t the only interests driving Google’s business. We can only hope that some of these employees will keep one foot outside the global technical elite of accountants, investment bankers and computer scientists, planting it firmly in the physical environments in which most of us live our lives, detached from the knowledge that would allow us to break norms in ways that don’t, as social theorist Luc Boltanski puts it, lead our words and deeds to be disqualified as eccentricity or madness.

Unfortunately it seems that Silicon Valley is fast becoming a physical dystopia in which all but the global technical elite are priced out. Google employees are invading the Bay Area that many would once have described as though it were a natural physical utopia. The relative deprivation this is creating, as described by Rebecca Solnit in a recent article, is very real, very physical. It is already the world we are living in, and Schmidt doesn’t need to go to North Korea to find it. It’s on his doorstep.


Josh Booth is the founder of the King's Review and completed a PhD candidate in Sociology. His research looks at the ethics of publication, economies of knowledge and innovation.