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What is Google's business, exactly?

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Castle Howard

 

The revelation of the political views of Google's senior management after the Trump election comes as no surprize. They are all Bay Area liberals. What is odd is how much Google appears as a Guardian institution, not a business.

This was revealed by the leak of the video of a collective meeting of management and staff that occurred shortly after Trump's electoral victory. It is worth watching in its entirety.

 

 Sergei Brin, co founder, likens Trump's victory to an eruption of fascism, brought about by "boredom". "So many people apparently don't share the values that we have", he says.

 

Women, sexual minorities, people with kids, and so forth, need to be concerned, he implies.

 

At various times Google employees are encouraged to hug one another, are assured that the ten thousand (!) Google workers on visas will be protected, are encouraged to keep on fighting for what's right, and deal with the healing process of recovery from the shock of the election. Ruth Porat the CFO says of Google that everyone at Google "can bring their whole self to work".

 

Clearly, having regard for the firing later in 2017 of James Damore, the engineer who questioned Google's ideological echo chamber for his polite questioning of the diversity mantra on the grounds that men and women may actually have different, not completely overlapping, characteristics, such a claim rings hollow. You can bring your whole self to work except if you are male conservative, in which case shut up and stow your white male privilege.

 

The second aspect of the weirdness of the Google meeting is the insistence on "values". Not a word is mentioned of quarterly profits. It is all about "civility, inclusion and respect". We might all agree that these are desirable goals but the Damore firing indicates that they are no more tolerant of actual political diversity than anyone else is.

 

As Scott Johnson observed in City Journal:

 

Watching the video, though, one would think that Google’s business is politics, or that its business adheres to the quasi-religion of progressive liberalism. It’s hard to keep in mind while watching that what one is seeing is a regularly scheduled employee meeting of a high-tech company, in part because Google management glows with such enlightened self-regard. Google executives draw few distinctions between their company’s business and progressive politics—though they see these values as being self-evident. As the company’s “vice president of people operations,” Eileen Naughton, explains, “the values that are held dear in this company transcend politics because we’re going to constantly fight to preserve them.”

 

 

 

The late Jane Jacobs wrote a highly important book about "values" in her "Systems of Survival". She posited that there were two systems, the commercial and the Guardian. A guardian institution would include the church, the regiment, the police, governmental agencies, all those who do not live and die by quarterly profits. Hand a suitcase of cash to a businessman and you are behaving morally within the commercial moral syndrome; hand a suitcase of cash to a judge and you are behaving corruptly. Her book is a careful analysis of the two rival moral syndromes. I recommend it highly.

 

Jacobs said that a commercial institution could be corrupted by adopting Guardian values as much as a Guardian institution could be corrupted by adopting commercial goals. You may recall the old telephone monopolies defending their monopolies on the basis of public service, which was a real ethos in the former monopoly days.

 

This leads me to a discussion I have had with Geoff Huston as to what Google's business model really consists of. It makes zillions with advertizing, and wrecks previous and now obsolete business models (such as, for example, newspapers) It has a tendency not to pursue things to completion. Rather it gets into and out of business lines (Motorola) at will.  I am not questioning their rights to engage in creative destruction, as Schumpeter calls it. By and large Google has had a tremendously positive effect on retrieving information.

 

In the Jane Jacobs sense, Google is acting rather more like a Guardian institution than a commercial one. I liken it to a British Duke of the 18th century rearranging landscapes on the basis of enormous new profits from reorganizing agriculture. Think of Castle Howard, for example,  as the embodiment of Google-sized profits.

 

The Google video of the TGIF meeting post-election appears to confirm my view that Google is not so much a business as an ideological movement funded by a business, and the Damore firing is further evidence. I do not question their good will, I question whether they have a view of history and humanity that is adequate to their self-imposed task. It would not matter if they were 3M or Ford. It starts to be of concern when they seek to organize and make useful all human knowledge. Like a communications carrier, the transmission and organization of knowledge is affected with a much graver importance than the making of physical things.

 

Google's mandate is to "educate and empower" says one employee (at 1:03:25). This is a worthy goal, although it seems that Google has a special conception of what education and empowerment mean, namely that those who do not believe in the current Bay Area idea of the future need further "education".

 

This is a Guardian, and not a commercial, goal. It lends credence to my view that Google is a more a cult than a normal business.

 

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Friday, 19 October 2018
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