Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
At what point do we need to revisit the way that we have come to use the term “Google” in everyday conversations? Since entering the popular vernacular the term has largely come to act as a stand in for the company’s original product (its search engine); however, there seems to be something rather quaint these days in saying “go Google it.” Not because the search engine is no longer used, but because the term seems to evoke a corporate moment that is largely in the past. Google’s search engine may still be the top search engine, but using “Google it” as shorthand for “go use a search engine” may hide the degree to which Google is now more, much more, than a simple page emblazoned with the company’s logo and an inviting search box.
Rather it may be fairer to shift our usage of the term “Google” to represent an act of massive, vaguely monopolistic, expansion – a burst of growth reminiscent of the Blob wherein everything it touches is incorporated back into the corporate whole.
The latest evidence that such a shifting of concepts may be necessary comes courtesy of the news that Google has recently acquired the robotics company Boston Dynamics – the firm behind many of the cantering, climbing robots that solicit chuckles from some whilst making others ponder whether or not the engineers behind these bots have ever seen any piece of science-fiction in which robots prove foe rather than friend. What is particularly interesting in these reports is not simply the acquisition, but rather a fact that can easily be missed if one only reads the first few paragraphs of a given article (or blog post), namely (as John Markoff reported in the New York Times):
“It is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year.”
Markoff goes on to explain that it is a bit unclear as to what exactly Google plans to do with all of these robotics companies (he suggests that the uses might range “from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care”). Though some of the robotics companies (such as Boston Dynmaics) have been involved with military contracts, it seems that Google may choose not to renew some of these contracts once they are completed. Indeed, on the face of it, there is a certain sense in which it is tempting to read of Google purchasing Boston Dynamics as just another piece of boring corporate tech news: another company being bought out by another company. Yet treating it dismissively risks ignoring an important fact: this is “the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year.”
On the one hand it is tempting to view this as simply another move in the ongoing tech game known as “acquiring all of the patents.” It seems obvious that purchasing Boston Dynamics – not to mention the other seven robotics companies recently acquired – brings with it an impressive portfolio of patents (in addition to some machines that probably do not know Asimov’s laws of robotics). This theory seems to gain particular weight, seeing as it was only a few weeks ago that people were all in a tizzy about the idea of Amazon delivering packages by Drone. If the next legal battles by tech firms are fought over robotics patents instead of smart phone patents, the companies are getting ready. In short: tech companies seem to think that robotics is going to be an increasingly profitable field in the years ahead, and thus they are already establishing unassailable positions.
Yet the point of patents only leads to a further question: why does Google want to acquire patents related to robotics? Obviously the answer is “to make more money” and “grow the Google brand;” however, both of those answers only direct us to a further question: what does Google really do these days? To which the answer is: everything. Or at least that’s the position that Google wants to put itself in. Google, it seems, has decided that it wants to own the technological future, and frankly they’re doing quite well in advancing towards that goal. After all, what does the company get that has everything in its sector? Another sector, of course. Google is already the dominant player in numerous areas of technology, and while it cannot quite get a complete monopoly in any of those areas (the illusion of competition must be preserved!) the solution is to move into new areas.
The robotics sector is certainly growing and it is certainly going to be of increasing importance in the coming years, and by purchasing so many robotics firms in such a short period Google has staked itself out as a dominant force in the field early. Consider that those eight robotics firms were previously competitors to greater or lesser extents (and isn’t competition important to the spirit of capitalism?), yet in purchasing all of these forms Google collapses all of these competitors into a single corporate identity. It’s somewhat surprising that all of these acquisitions have been approved, but government regulations seem unwilling to recognize that Google may increasingly be turning into a monopoly – one that can snatch up (and immediately dominate) any new fields it desires. Despite the popular myth of bright new tech concepts, will a start up begun in a garage be a rival to Google, or just something new for Google to buy? Likely the latter.
In the well-known image from the late 1930s (below), Communism was depicted as a massive Octopus with its tentacles grabbing onto the entire globe.
If that image were to be redrawn today it might be far more fitting for the hammer and sickle to be replaced by the “G” logo and for the title “How Communism Works” to be changed to “How Google Works.” For Google seems committed to continually expanding, and once it has its tentacles on a new field it is unlikely to relinquish its grip.
Which returns us to the question with which we began – is it perhaps time to revisit what we mean when we say “Google something?” Perhaps to “Google” is simply a shorthand way of saying “buy up” in a way that ensures one’s dominance of the technological future? Although it may just be that we need to start thinking of Google as Cthulhu’s little brother who spent too much time soaking in the California sun and realized that the easiest way to dominate humanity way to bribe them with shiny toys.
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