Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Without meaning to be rude or insulting, here is a question for you to ponder: how cheaply can you be bought off? How lavish a bribe would need to be placed in front of you for you to consider it acceptable? More importantly, would you recognize the bribe for what it was when you saw it?
Contrary to what some may think, it appears that it is actually very profitable to not be evil. Granted this is not a paean to moral business practices in the tech sector, it is not even a comment on the notion of good and evil, it is simply meant to indicate that a company can take “don’t be evil” as a corporate motto or ethos and still enjoy stellar profits. Actually, this may simply be an indication that when it comes to profit and tech company ethics questions of good and evil are teabags that have been reused five dozen times – a hint of the flavor remains, but the tea is pretty weak.
For those without much of an investment portfolio (or those without an investment portfolio at all) the news that the share price for Google has gone over $1,000 may seem rather insignificant. After all, unless one owns shares of Google – or was planning on buying shares – it seems rather unimportant, as if it is simply the financial proof of something about which there was little debate; namely that Google is an extremely successful (and therefore profitable) company. For a company founded in 1998, Google has enjoyed an extremely impressive history thus far as it has gone from just one amongst many competitors in the search engine field to the, frankly, omnipresent entity that it is today.
From the ubiquitous titular search engine, to gmail, to Google maps, to Google Drive, to YouTube, to Chrome, to the Android operating system for mobile devices, to actual mobile devices like Moto X and the still in quasi-development Google Glass, to Chromecast, to the Google Play store, to the foray into social networking Google+, to the realm of Google prototypes such as the self driving car (and the list could certainly go on); Google occupies a massive amount of territory in the electronic/digital realm. It is not simply that the valuing of a share at $1,000 confirms that Google’s various endeavors have been successful, it is that this share price also demonstrates that in the realm of technology it may be becoming increasingly irreverent (and irrelevant) to speak of Google as if it seriously has competitors.
Though Yahoo!, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and a few other companies, may still be engaged in combat with Google, it seems that Google is continually coming out on top (though minor setbacks occur) and in the ensuing “buy up” wars that have taken place Google has made some shrewd decisions. It is true that Moto X was not an iPhone killer and it is true that Google+ has not displaced Facebook; yet, it is important not to focus on one of Google’s tentacles, for this company is a many (many!) limbed cephalopod. When making even a partial mental catalog of the Google empire – in comparison to other online fiefdoms – it is stunning to realize just how much Google holds. Furthermore the larger and more powerful the company becomes the more entrenched it becomes and the better able it is to ward off (or buy out) competitors.
Though it is a term that is not brandished particularly often in current discourse about technology, Google (and many of its competitors) needs to be viewed as a monopoly, especially as its rising stock price further locks in this power. In his book Digital Disconnect (a review of the book can be read here), Robert McChesney writes at length about the monopoly structure of current tech companies (and though the book is quite recent, the monopolies have only grown stronger since his book was published); McChesney notes of this new tech status quo that:
“barring political intervention, some version of these giant monopolies is likely here for the duration.” (McChesney, 141)
as McChesney continues on the next page:
“None of these monopolies would have been possible without supportive and enabling government policies on a range of issues, as well as considerable previous investments by the government…the giants know full well that their existence depends upon favorable regulation and taxation policies. Their existence is predicated upon a government that not only accepts but expedites and facilitates their economic power.” (McChesney, 142)
Bear in mind that the government does have the power to rein in some of the expansions of these corporations, it could put a stop to some of the buying of upstart competitors, and could force some of these companies to break up. While this notion will certainly sit uncomfortably with celebrants of the “free market” it is important to recognize that in a market where giants can stomp about unchallenged the notion of “competition” is as meaningless as the use of the word “free.” These giants fear no rock from David’s sling, or harassment from Jack hopping off the bean stalk, for these giants have hired David and bought out the beanstalk. The bi-partisan spreading of campaign money and acquiescence to demands for governmental cooperation (see: NSA revelations) demonstrate that corporations like Google know better than to challenge the one competitor that could actually counter them. After all, it was not Google (acting on behalf of Gmail) that refused to comply with NSA demands it was a tiny upstart (lavabit), which has since vanished. Regardless, it is not as though companies like Google have a particularly respectable record when it comes to such paltry concerns as your privacy (just think, you’ll be featured in advertisements soon). Google executives may recognize that there is a certain authoritarian potential in some of their technology…but that won’t keep them from doing anything that might jeopardize that rising share price.
Which returns the matter to the questions with which we began, namely: why do we not demand that the concentrated power of these companies (like Google) be dismantled? Why do we not insist that Google be recognized as a monopoly, and insist that this untrustworthy trust be broken up? Lack of faith in politicians aside, why is there not more concern about these monopolies – not as data harvesters or privacy violators – but as monopolies? Perhaps it is because politicians required bribes in the forms of campaign money, but for most people YouTube, Gmail, ChromeCast, Google search, and the mythical image of how wonderful it is to be a Google employee were bribe enough. Google has done such an excellent job of fattening the public with the tasty “free” stuff that most people ignore that the reason Google’s share is so high is because Google is sharing your information with every advertiser with a fat enough wallet.
The concept of the technological bribe (or “megatechnic bribe”) emerges from the writings of Lewis Mumford, in his essay “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Mumford explains how these current technological systems have been so successful, (I shall quote at length) for these systems of technological bribery have:
“accepted the basic principle of democracy, that every member of society should have a share in its goods. By progressively fulfilling this part of the democratic promise, our system has achieved a hold over the whole community that threatens to wipe out every other vestige of democracy.
The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority…But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. Once one opts for the system no further choice remains. In a word, if one surrenders one’s life at source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.” (Mumford, 6)
That Mumford never lived to witness the name of the corporation Google becoming a verb in addition to noun, only further demonstrates the impressive foresight of his words. For the system which Google has developed is a better proof of Mumford’s worries than the technological corporations of his time had been. Through its panoply of products Google truly does present the public with a “magnificent bribe” that promises to deliver “every intellectual and emotional stimulus” yet this comes at a cost. By accepting the bribe, the source of the bribe is strengthened and legitimized, and those who have accepted the bribe are pulled into the control of those who are always dreaming up ever more impressive bribes lest people should go astray. We become so accustomed to the bribery that we refuse to challenge the one doling out the bribes, lest our supply of shiny new techno tools should slow. Google gives people back a great deal if they are willing to accept its bribes, but one can “ask for nothing that the system does not provide;” and one cannot ask for that which the system is unwilling to deliver (say, privacy). Mumford was not opposed to technology (as such) and questioning the power that Google (and its kin) has accumulated is not an attack on technology, but rather on a particular form of technology (albeit an increasingly dominant form of technology). As Mumford wrote:
“it is time to reckon up the human disadvantages and costs, to say nothing of the dangers, of our unqualified acceptance of the system itself. Even the immediate price is heavy; for the system is so far from being under effective human direction that it may poison us wholesale to provide us with food or exterminate us to provide national security, before we can enjoy its promised goods…we must challenge this authoritarian system that has given to an underdimensioned ideology and technology the authority that belongs to the human personality. I repeat: life cannot be delegated.” (Mumford, 7)
It is in attempting to counter that last sentence that the bribe reveals itself most fully, as the technological bribe made by Google (and other companies) orbits around convincing individuals that more and more of our lives can (and should) be delegated to technological systems. It is dangerous for a company like Google to become a monopoly in society, and it is even more dangerous (if not more so) for technology to monopolize our lives. It is easy to be taken in by a bribe, particularly one as dazzling and “magnificent” as that offered by a company like Google, yet bribes are tools of distraction and misdirection, which implicate us in our woeful state of affairs.
For Google’s share price to continue increasing it knows that it must continually provide the public with ever more wondrous bribes. But that does not mean that we must, or should, accept them. The first step in combating bribery, is to recognize that it is what’s going on, and to refuse to accept the offer.
McChesney, Robert. Digital Disconnect. The New Press, 2013.
Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture. v. 5, no. 1 (Winter, 1964) pp. 1-8.