Google: an anti-capitalist scapegoat?

In the run-up to this week’s live spiked debate, Jason Walsh of forth magazine asks if Google's behaviour really is abnormal.

Jason Walsh

Topics Science & Tech

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In the run-up to the live spiked debate ‘Has Google got too big?’, taking place in central London on Thursday 18 March, we have been publishing a series of articles on Google. Here, Jason Walsh, editor of online magazine Forth, looks at the reality of Google the business.

Founded in 1998 by a pair of Stanford PhD students and initially housed, true to Silicon Valley start-up tradition, in a suburban garage, Google is now the world’s leader in internet search technology and one of the most well-known – and valuable – companies in the world. The corporation now has 90 per cent of the US internet search market and, profiting hugely from the sale of what is effectively extremely low-end classified advertising, has expanded into all areas of electronic life, from email to blogging and electronic books to mobile phones.

And here ends the BusinessWeek-style hagiography. If you want to read the tech porn story of how a few plucky nerds conquered the world, I am afraid you will have to look elsewhere. Similarly, if you want to read about how Google is the avatar for all that is evil in the modern world, there are plenty of books and newspaper articles made just for you. This article is about reality: messy, un-virtual and clay-footed, as it always is.

In recent years Google’s omnipresence – and seeming omniscience – has made it a target for all manner of criticism, from level-headed civil libertarian critiques, through businesses complaining it is cannibalising their products and destroying their market value, to barking-mad conspiracy theorist screeds. In most cases, the problem with Google can be boiled down to the company’s success: it is too powerful and, given its domination of the information business, it makes our private lives public property.

Critiques of Google seem to overlook one fundamental factor: it is behaving in the way any such business would. Like complaints about the current slump that single out the banks, many attacks on Google are misdirected. Calls to slap down any individual corporation or segment of industry may have an emotionally satisfying ring, but they do precisely nothing to challenge the fundamental inequities of a market economy.

In addition, Google’s Californian free-booting ‘ideology’ is clearly foreign-sounding to European ears, smacking of the kind of US-style, business-obsessed ‘libertarianism’ that we fear is greedily gobbling-up our way of life.

In fact, it’s a fraud. The entire information-technology sector is propped-up by huge US government contracts (and always has been, right from the outset, whether one goes back to the military’s support for development of semiconductors or Hollerith (later IBM) processing the US census in 1890). Contemporary left-liberal, and in particular anti-capitalist, critiques of the economy have a tendency to see everything in terms of voracious business entities attacking society. Such a one-eyed view discounts the fact that even today the private sector is dependent on enormous state subsidy – and was even at the height of the boom (1).

The company’s recent spat with the Chinese government over alleged hacking unmasks the cold reality at the heart of business: it’s all about the money. Human-rights campaigners have been lambasting Google (and competitors Yahoo and Microsoft) for its ‘support’ for the Chinese government. In reality Google has little interest in Chinese politics; all it wants to do is enter the massive Chinese marketplace and so only fell out with the Chinese (apparently) when something hurt the company’s bottom-line. This in itself is viewed by many as a kind of passive political act. But the onus is not on the likes of Google to bring about social change, regardless of the demands of ethical consumers or the fevered fantasies of free-marketeers who mistake economics for politics.

Google’s ‘links’ to the US government have also caused alarm. Again, in reality these ‘links’ are nothing more than a desire to do lucrative business with the government and the need to comply with law enforcement agencies in order to do so. If the state, whether in the form of the police or the intelligence agencies, is using Google to snoop on citizens then the problem isn’t Google, it’s the state. Even without direct state support, Google stands on the shoulders of the developments the state did fund, from semiconductors to the internet itself (2).

All of these anti-Google arguments rely on one simple piece of reasoning that itself appears to be fatally flawed: that Google is simply too powerful. But Google is not omnipotent and its products are not guaranteed successes. Orkut, Google’s answer to Facebook, is an irrelevance and the company’s two most recent forays into social networking, Google Wave and Google Buzz were both flops.

Wave flopped because people baulked at the idea of what was effectively a privatised e-mail system (and it had an appallingly ugly and confusing user-interface, to boot). Buzz, meanwhile, was rejected precisely because people are aware that their privacy and anonymity is valuable and Buzz threatened this.

Moreover, Google does do at least one thing that many other corporations have given-up on: it innovates – and failures such as Buzz and Wave are as much a part of the innovation process as successes like the Google search engine and GMail. Google’s innovations are primarily in the fields of software and services and, although it would be nice to see some more innovation in the material world, the company’s efforts are not to be sniffed at. Cynics may view programmes like ‘Summer of Code‘ as mere PR exercises or further attempts at world domination, but there is no question that it puts its money where its mouth is.

Google won the search wars, not to mention its massive market share, because it was better than the alternatives – remember, Google was once the search provider for Yahoo, so even its competitors recognised the value of the company’s technologies. Newer competitors such as Cúil and Microsoft’s recent re-entry into the market, Bing, simply aren’t good enough to topple it but that doesn’t mean that right now there isn’t someone in a garage in Silicon Valley, or more likely Shanghai, gearing-up to unleash an even better alternative.

Even if Google continues to dominate internet search, who is to say that will matter very much a decade hence? Microsoft dominates the desktop computing arena, but it is deeply concerned about its empire crumbling. That is not only because of assaults from reinvigorated competitors in the form of Apple and the free software movement’s GNU/Linux, but because rapid technological development may make dominating the desktop in the future about as significant as dominating the abacus market would be today. Certainly, the explosive growth of low-powered and internet-centric netbook computers, not to mention smartphones and the coming barrage of tablet devices such as Apple’s iPad suggests a major shift in how we interact with information technology is coming.

Not everything Google wants to do is necessarily positive, of course. For instance, the transfer of basic computing applications such as word processing and spreadsheets onto distant servers on the internet – so-called ‘cloud computing’ – does raise serious questions around data security. However, the question of security, like privacy and anonymity, is social in nature not technical. After all, we ourselves can decide whether to accept or reject Google’s offerings.

My own industry – journalism – is under enormous pressure from Google and publishers are lining-up to slam it as the murderer of news. While it is true that widespread internet access was bound to have an effect on how people consume media, publishers would do better to look at their own failures, such as effectively telling people news had no value, before pointing the finger at what is, after all, a mere aggregation service.

Google itself is no stranger to the business world’s loss of faith in its historic mission. Famously, the corporation’s slogan is ‘Don’t be evil’. All corporate slogans are stupid but Google’s is a particularly apposite example of the mind-bending idiocy at work in contemporary boardrooms. It, like that of all businesses, should be: ‘Make lots of money’. After all, Google is legally required to promote shareholder value.

Still, while it is perfectly legitimate to take issue with Google, there’s a danger of treating the symptom rather than the disease. To make an argument that singles out Google, while perfectly acceptable from a logical standpoint, is to ignore the current social, economic and political order. There is an old hacker dictum that goes ‘information wants to be free’. Google’s entire empire is built on this notion. The thing is, it’s wrong. Information doesn’t want anything at all, it’s what we want that matters – and if we want to be free, we have to free ourselves.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. He is the editor of forth, a new online current affairs magazine.

What do YOU think? Let us know by clicking here.

The spiked debate, ‘Has Google got too big?’, will take place at the Royal Society of Arts in London between 6.30pm and 8pm on Thursday 18 March. It’s a free debate, but to avoid disappointment book your place NOW: click here.

Previously on spiked

Simon Davies warned that Google might steer us to a ‘privacy Chernobyl’. Andrew Orlowski said we’re all in Google’s crossfire. Rob Killick called Google a frenemy of the internet generation. Or read more at the spiked debate page Has Google got too big?.

(1) A fact that has been noted by keen minds on left and right alike. For instance, read Mark Zepezauer’s book Take the Rich Off Welfare (on Google Books here) or the Cato Institute report The Corporate Welfare State: How the Federal Government Subsidizes U.S. Businesses. Frequent spiked contributor James Heartfield crunches the British numbers in his article for Mute magazine ‘State capitalism in Britain‘.

(2) For detailed expositions of this era, and of how ‘cybernetics’ was itself promoted as a substitute for politics, see: Behind the Silicon Curtain: The Seductions of Work in A Lonely Era, by Dennis Hayes (South End Press, 1989) and Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village, by Richard Barbrook (Pluto Press, 2007).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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