Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Living in a country with a nominally functional government has its annoying aspects. There are laws that you are expected to abide by, taxes that you are expected to pay, slow languid systems one is expected to work within to achieve even marginal change, red lights that you are expected to sit patiently at, and if you are a business owner there are occasional regulations by which you are expected to abide. For some, such limitations are understood (to a greater or lesser extent) as being part of a tradeoff that one enters into when choosing to live in a given country: you put up with some of the hassles (stop lights) and in exchange get to partake in the beneficial stuff (paved roads).
There are always some who tend to view the annoyances as less of a tradeoff and more of a showing of tyrannical teeth, and in such cases those who are quick to see the tyrant’s shadow are prone to seeing only the bothersome limitations and none of the benefits that they enjoy. It seems that there is a particular vogue for this attitude amongst certain business interests (who may or may not be Ayn Rand fans) who tend to see in regulations and taxes not an annoying-if-reasonable-burden but a fundamentally unjust and unethical imposition. Thus, these groups can dream of a free-market utopia wherein they are unbridled from all of the pesky regulations that somehow did not prevent them from getting rich in the first place.
In recent months such Randian (as in Ayn) capitalist utopias have seen a bit of a popular resurgence as Glenn Beck has talked of his free market Disney world, whilst wealthy developers dream of turning part of Detroit into an independent city state, while still others fantasize of building floating isles where capital shall be stamped on the capitol. And it seems that such fantasies have begun to intrude upon the imagination of none other than Google’s CEO Larry Page, or such was as it seemed at Google’s recent I/O conference.
Reporting for Slate Will Oremus penned (or typed) a piece titled “Google CEO Is Tired of Rivals, Laws, Wants to Start His Own Country,” in which Oremus quotes from Page’s comments:
““Maybe we can set aside part of the world,” he mused. “I like going to Burning Man. As a technologist maybe we need some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.””
The website The Verge had more from Page (in a piece titled “Larry Page wants to ‘set aside a part of the world’ for unregulated experimentation“):
“the pace of change is increasing” and [Page] said that “we haven’t adapted systems to deal with that.” Specifically, he said that “not all change is good” and said that we need to build “mechanisms to allow experimentation…There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.”
Before going any further it is incumbent upon me to state that Page’s comments were likely meant to be heard as humorous, and that his comments may have been more in line with casual musings than some kind of actual plan. In short, there is little reason to believe that Page (or anybody else at Google) is thinking like Beck, or the seasteaders and starting to truly plan out a nation state that resembles a giant Google campus (though it is easy to imagine that such a move would attract many who find more overtly Randian settlement concepts repulsive).
It is perhaps understandable why Page is feeling frustrated of late, earlier in the week he received a letter from members of Congress expressing concerns about Google Glass and privacy (more on that here), Google has recently had to pay out a fair amount of money in settlements (though it’s likely rather small change by Google’s standards), and as Oremus describes Page also seems frustrated by the actions of some of Google’s competitors (such as Microsoft). In other words the situation was primed for a Google exec to pine for a world, or part of the world, without pesky regulators and where competitors had to bow before the political dictates of the ruling company of the land.
Granted, Google has risen to prominence and success largely thanks to the country where it started, as well as owing some debt to other nations that have provided it with space to grow. This is not to diminish the intelligence or ingenuity of the various folks at Google (including Page), but business and copyright laws in the US, regulations regarding privacy and information, lax monopoly laws, pools of young and highly educated labor, and an easily exploitable tax code have all helped Google grow massively in a rather short span of time. Furthermore Google has benefited from numerous other infrastructural elements: roads, air traffic controllers, the educational system (which has helped churn out much of their workforce), the power grid, and so forth. Yet, these points should be fairly obvious, and I doubt that Page (who does not seem much of Randian) would disagree with these points.
What Page seems to dream of is a space where there will be an increased freedom for technological experimentation, a region where regulations vanish more quickly than plug-ins for old operating systems. The Verge quoted Page as noting that change seems to be coming quicker, and he seems to suggest that current regulations and laws are serving as an anchor dragging on this quickening. Thus, he’d like to pull up the anchor (or cut it loose) and sail away to see where these winds of quickening change will take Google.
On the one hand the idea of Google (or a different company) functioning as a genuinely separate country is rather fascinating, for a fairly simple reason: Google knows more about you than the government does. Imagine what the reaction would be in the US (or another country) if tomorrow it were reported that the spy agencies of a country Q had amassed a vast trove of sensitive information about the citizenry of your country (including you). There would be quite the public outcry, and likely all manners of laws would be hastily passed to amplify cyber security, to cut down on the sharing of information, to make it so that this foreign country was penalized, and to protect the privacy of the citizenry. Sanctions anybody?
Indeed, were Google a country and not a company than some of its systematic violations of people’s privacy would not be met with simple fines but might be met with the freezing of diplomatic relations. After all, the history of the world contains plenty of instances where countries reacted none-too-kindly to espionage by foreign powers. Granted, of course, if Google were to somehow become an independent country at this moment it would hastily raise a concern about what this now foreign entity might do with all of the information it has already accumulated. Google might not wind up being a big country, but it possesses the “big data” on many a big country (more on “big data” here).
Furthermore, if Google were truly its own country it could find itself hit with levies and tariffs that would make it pine for the preferential treatment it had once received while safely ensconced within already established nation states. Which is to say nothing of the other questions that Google, the country, would need to face, such as what would their labor laws look like (we’ve all heard of the long hours pulled by some Google workers, would this become mandatory)? Who would guarantee that the buildings don’t collapse (there is something to be said for regulation)? And this of course is to avoid the obvious point that Google benefits from being located in nations that provide the police/military structures that prevent “rogue country H” from simply invading Google the country and forcing all of those techies to work building bombs instead of apps that are “the bomb” (is that lingo a bit old?).
Yet this is all obfuscation. It can be fun to mull over what Google might look like as a country (they don’t need secret police because everybody wears Google Glass), but it misses the larger concern raised by Page’s comment. For the problem is that in this age of multinational corporations (such as Google), these companies already command a level of power that is almost on par if not in excess of many nations. Certainly Google may not have the same type of power (yet) as the US, but (meaning no offense) Google probably has greater international impact, influence and force than, say, (again meaning no offense) Luxemburg. The company’s worth is certainly in excess of that of many nations GDPs.
Though the part of Page’s comments that is perhaps most concerning is his view that there needs to be an area where technology can freely develop and experiment “where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.” This balance of “try things” matched with an avoidance of using them in “the entire world” seems a rather problematic notion of technology in our current age. Granted, research labs at companies and universities already function as closed spaces where things can be tried without them needing to be deployed “to the entire world;” however, once new technology enters the market they quickly deploy to the entire world. And when one company hears what another is developing it can set off a technological arms race to see who can get to the market first.
Perhaps there is an element of conservatism in Page’s comment (not political conservatism), maybe his desire to have a space to “try things” out is meant as a counter to the speed of technological change. Yet keeping things secured in laboratories can be quite a challenge, despite what Page may say about wanting a “safe” space. Technology or programs may begin as experiments in a regulation free space, but what of the moment when they are released from regulation free zones into protected areas? Will the defenses hold?
In a technological society new technics spread like a binary plague carried by mechanical rats; today’s bubonic boils have touch screens, tomorrow’s a small camera that sits by the right eye, the day after they have…
What are the things that Page’s acolytes are so eager to experiment with? What are the laws and regulations holding them back? I do not meant to engage in idle fantasizing, but perhaps some of the laws and regulations that are keeping certain things from being toyed with are actually serving an excellent purpose. After all, if a given group (say, Google) wanted a specific regulation repealed it is imaginable that they have the resources and influence to mount an effort to see such regulations altered. Google would hardly be the first company to seek to strike down bothersome regulations.
It is also worth bearing in mind that we are already the unwitting test subjects for Google’s (and similar companies) future experiments. By using Google (search), YouTube, Gmail, the Droid operating system, or dozens of other tools we have furnished Google with a wealth of information that exceeds the financial value of the company. When Google wants to experiment and requires data to work with, we are already the test subjects, and when Google wants to try something new, we are the ones bearing the side effects (such as when Google + imported people’s contacts from Gmail). Page may be bothered by the last vestiges of resistance to them renaming their California campus Lugburz, but the resistance that has been mounted against Google (more on that here) is hardly worthy of the name resistance. It isn’t even a resist stance.
Google does not need to be a separate country (though it can be fun to think about where on Eric Schmidt’s technological authoritarianism scale Google the country would wind up), for it already acts with the uncaring impunity of many a government, albeit one with better branding. While it may not always seem to be the case, governments and countries are supposed to be accountable to their citizens, but would Google only be accountable to its shareholders? It’s a worrisome thing to contemplate.
Living in a society brings with it certain challenges, and annoyances, of this there is no doubt; however, in breaking free of the strictures of a country a company may seek to obtain a level of moral authority to which it has little historical, pluralistic, or societal claim. Not unlike a crazed scientist pining for absolute authority to carry out experiments with impunity Google may desire the freedom to experiment without limitations, but it is upon us that the penalty for such mad experimentation shall be exacted.
The rate of technological change has consistently shown us that our mechanized momentum is moving faster than our morals can keep pace. We do not need more unrestrained room for technological experimentation, especially when the ones seeking such leeway have shown themselves time and again unworthy of such trust. Executives at companies like Google may express frustration at laws and regulation that keep them from unrestrained experimentation…yet the actions of executives at companies like Google and the programs that they push forward are all the proof that is needed that such people can not be trusted with such terrible responsibility.
Besides we already have a place where Google watches and records everything you do whilst acting with near immunity. It’s called planet Earth.