Google should be the product of a fevered imagination, a gleeful, Scottish madman. In the comic book Marvel Boy, the titular character is tasked with the job of capturing a living corporation; an entity that would hop from planet, branding the inhabitants, brainwashing them and sucking the planet dry of its resources. Afterwards, it moves on to the next world. In the series it’s known as “Hexus”, but if writer Grant Morrison (Scottish madman extraordinaire) had penned the story today, he couldn’t have done better than Google.
No, this is not a column powered by fire-breathing reactionaryism. There is no stopping technological advancement and it would be disingenuous to imply that Google is draining Mother Earth of the essentials. It’s as green as they come and really there’s a lot to like about the company. It offers a growing array of free applications and affordable hardware with an eye towards the future: a Wi-Fi world where everything from word processing software to music is within a touch. Oh wait, that’s already happened, but everyone is still learning how to take advantage of it. Where most companies play catch-up with its customers, only Google (and perhaps Apple) share an inverse relationship with society. The world is constantly a step behind it. With that in mind, it’s time to discuss the ways in which Google is alive and the ramifications that has for the public, its food–er, customers.
In the eyes of the law, the notion that corporations are people is over a hundred years old. It’s a storied and complex history this writer doesn’t have the patience to analyze, easier to explain the time travel shenanigans of the X-Men on a flow chart the size of a postal stamp. To quote Bradley Smith, “corporations are associations of individuals, with a right to defend their interests.” It is not the individuals that matter so much as the idea though, the intellectual fascia of branding, goals, mission statements, products, etc. that give the corporation color, drive and shape. Google Search, Google Drive, YouTube, promise accessibility and a connected open source experience in which one creates their own reality, the promise of a friendly, designer life.
The book (and documentary) The Corporation explodes the concept of the corporation-as-person by examining the mental life of such entities. It’s not a pretty picture, one that bares shocking similarity to the life of a psychopath. An overwhelming per-occupation with self-interest, the book argues, is the true culprit, one that has cost the planet and countries Friday the 13th levels of carnage.
Google has its own morality, encapsulated by the maxim “don’t be evil.” This seems innocuous enough, even refreshing! The problem lies in how Google defines evil. In the eyes of the company, “evil” is that which is not pragmatic or inhibits the company’s ability to behave efficiently. Ian Bogost observes “Google’s motto seems to have largely succeeded at reframing “evil” to exclude all actions performed by Google,” so despite refinements the morality seems firmly located within the existing troubling paradigm.
In arguing for its personhood Google has the force of law coupled with a murky conscience governing the decision making process. Our concern for humanity then is a matter of check and balances. It is unlikely corporations will catch a a lethal, A.I.D.S meme and suddenly die off. It’s our responsibility to facilitate mechanisms of regulation to protect us from Google’s baser instincts.
Google is capable of tremendous innovation, changing the way we look at the world, but unlike older, earthbound corporations living off natural resources, Google feeds on privacy. In 2009 CEO Eric Schmidt said “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” It hordes information and secrets. One then greets his recent protestations over NSA spying with extreme skepticism and a touch of amusement. When dealing with Google, the general public biggest concern should be the company’s ability to broker information, to censor facts the way Enron hid its accounting books and drained the pensions of the working class in favor of bolstering the escape plans of the executives. It will do these things because it would be evil not to do them, perhaps then it is the corporate culture that deserves a watchful eye more so than the almighty algorithm that is the heartbeat of the company. Pragmatics and convenience are easily conflated.
Whether the company is colluding with the government or merely butt-hurt that Google’s privacy was violated, the path to holding the tech industry giant is unclear. The American government continues it gangly belly flop from the cliff of democracy into the ice cold waters of authoritarianism. The free market is a fiction that exists to serve the powerful, and even if it isn’t, the market is culpable for the creation of all corporations. There are hacker collectives, but their victories are often fleeting. They work best as guerrilla journalists. The answer may lie in technology itself, never trusting one particular brand so completely we surrender our whole lives to it. Until such a time the solution is clear recoil from advocates of “don’t be evil,” challenge them. What does it mean to be good?
By David Arroyo