The web is not a panacea.

Web

Whether you’re a democrat or a republican, I would hope that you can look at the US invasion of Iraq with analytical detachment, and  as such, I believe it is both fair and relevant to identify President Bush as having a crusader’s mentality.  For better or worse, I happen to think he legitimately believed that the relatively simple job of toppling Saddam Hussein would lead to democracy flourishing like flowers in fresh soil, and this is why he failed to heed voices warning of events that ultimately came to pass.  I raise the subject not to rehash criticism of that administration but to suggest that we might be wary of leaders, political or commercial, bearing panaceas.  And that brings us to this article from last week’s Guardian, an extraction from the book The New Digital Age:  Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, co-authored by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, Google’s Executive Chairman and Director of Google Ideas, respectively.  Ominously titled Web censorship:  the net is closing in, the excerpt is ostensibly a warning against state-run censorship of the internet in nations already known to be deficient in the civil liberties department.  And while some of the analyses and predictions are thought-provoking, the underlying premises and ultimate purpose of the article inspire a frisson similar to the one I felt the day Dick Cheney said, “I believe we’ll be greeted as liberators…”  And then?

The assumption of the piece is that an “open” internet breeds democratic reform but that balkanization through state censorship will fulfill this odd prediction:  “What started as the world wide web will begin to look more like the world itself, full of internal divisions and divergent interests,” write Schmidt and Cohen.  Really? Divergent interests, you say?  Even in the era of Googletopia, diversity will persist and result in cultural divisions ranging from benign philosophical differences to sectarian violence, tribal warlords, and inhumane states? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the global, free flow of information, if it’s possible to maintain the infrastructure, but if you think American exceptionalism can be blindly arrogant at times, what Schmidt and Cohen are selling, techno-exceptionalism if you will, is something potentially more insidious.

What President Bush believed we could do with a taste of democracy, Schmidt and Cohen seem to believe can be done with information technology. In fact the assumption of all techno-utopian views tends to treat information as though, if left pure, it can only be used one way and ultimately for the greater good.  Just looking within our own already-free society, it’s pretty clear that “information” isn’t even necessarily information. An American in Idaho can be indoctrinated to jihad via YouTube without setting foot in a Mosque, let alone the Middle East.  Authorities estimate an 800% increase in domestic extremism over the last decade, and guess how these groups connect with one another. The design of Web 2.0 can be a terrible tool for data quality because it favors the crowd, favors what’s popular (i.e. trending), and is built almost exclusively on an economy of ad impressions, which means the money doesn’t need to promote a well-researched article about Syria in favor of page views on GirlsinYogaPants.com.  So, the web already does “look like the world itself,” even without government imposed balkanization, and the world just might continue to be as complexly imperfect, brilliant, and idiotic as it ever was despite the record-breaking views of Gagnam Style.

Schmidt and Cohen write about “walled gardens,” which is tech-speak for limited web environments that can be relatively benign or insidiously watched by state or corporate entities.  Facebook is a walled garden that hundreds of millions of us use daily, and it is a pretty good example of voluntary disconnection that commands a substantial amount of our web-based attention here in freedom-loving USA.  After all, isn’t Facebook something of an expanded version of social cliques that have formed naturally for centuries without technology’s assistance? Other than knowing what friends and loved ones are up to, which is nice, I would argue that using a walled garden like Facebook for information is simply bestowing the role of curator to personal acquaintances whose “filters” we trust in a given context.

Of course, the more narrow that context happens to be, if you and your friends share some extreme view like American law needs more Old Testament in it, the walls in your garden will naturally close in without any help from a state supervisor. The web can be a tool for expanding one’s world view, but it is very often an even more powerful tool for substantiating pre-existing biases. So it is a naive evangelist who believes that the web is somehow the new “city on a hill” (speaking of the Bible).  Thus, Schmidt and Cohen begin to sound a bit like the digital age incarnation of Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop, vowing to establish a foothold for the gospel whence enlightenment shall blossom, while glossing over the inherent imperialism in the enterprise.

No, I don’t want to see Iran build a “halal internet,” which would be its own version of the “great firewall of China,” but I have to question the motives of Google executives implying that this is the fulcrum on which the fate of that nation balances.  Iran managed to become the best educated, most progressive-leaning country in the Middle East before the Internet, and the forces that stand as a barrier to democratic reform are likely not due to a lack of available information or even contact with the outside world. We might just have to accept that Iran’s fate is not entirely ours to determine and that it’s a segment of the market Google doesn’t get to own. Yet.  Moreover, with the article’s final, dire words that an Iranian wall would “change the internet as we know it,” are we meant to infer that the censorship itself might spread to us and our fellow democratic societies?  Certainly, this is the belief among many out there, and it is bizarre to say the least when my fellow progressives put more faith in a multi-billion-dollar corporation to protect free expression than they do in one another.

But that’s the sleight of hand, isn’t it?  The masters of the web have convinced people that free expression hardly existed without this technology, while outside the walled gardens we find an illusion of an open web that is actually more circumscribed than many realize. Search results aren’t based on pure, boolean logic but are based on a number of factors ranging from paid positions to data mining us users, so Google algorithms can “help” us find what they assume we’re looking for. Or as a default, it seems to want to find what some seventeen year-old boy is looking for, which might explain why a search on the word “admiral” yields the top suggestion Ackbar.  And, of course, Wikipedia comes with everything.  Meanwhile, as Google pursues an agenda of consuming and monetizing every bit of data in human experience, violating privacy, trampling on intellectual property rights, and from time to time, just being evil, this one-world technological evangelism pushes us toward the day when we finally vest in a corporation the power of a state and the Information Age becomes a true Tower of Babel.  And it will be the well-meaning progressives who helped us do it.

If I had Eric Schmidt’s money and resources, and I really cared about the developing world, I can think of many places to start that are more pressing than the architecture of the internet in China or Iran.  Freedom can’t thrive on information and expression alone; it requires economic prosperity, security, and a universal belief in human rights. Off the cuff, I think of child slaves in the Cote d’Ivorie harvesting most of the world’s cocoa or the dangerous conditions of garment workers supplying the West, or the surprising number of homeless living in the New Jerusalem of Silicon Valley.  By contrast, fussing over hypothetical restrictions on Twitter just sounds dumb.

© 2013 – 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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12 comments

  • Interesting and well written, per your usual, David.

    Funny thing isn’t it? Weren’t these same people, not too long ago, telling us that the mechanisms in SOPA/PIPA would ultimately be meaningless if implemented; as the ease of getting around these type of filters was such a simple task that anyone could do it? Am i missing something?
    &
    Is it just me? or do any of you– when reading anything coming from Schmidt– do so looking to find the profit angle? Does anyone really believe he gives two steaming cow piles about anything but his companies’ bottom line?

    • David Newhoff

      Thanks, James. Motivation can be a tough thing to read, but I think there is a tendency for people who become very wealthy and influential to evangelize a world view because they all think they’re geniuses of one kind or another. Often, these individuals are geniuses — of one kind — but their brilliance in computer science or manufacturing or real estate development or whatever made them rich and powerful will morph into crusader with an enormous ego out to reshape the world in some way. See Donald Trump running for president. Schmidt & Cohen are smarter than that, but this particular excerpt from the book is an exercise in ivory-tower wankery. “The first virtual asylum seeker????” Who gives a damn? What about the millions of people who could use a little asylum in, y’know, real life? Anyway, in my experience, past a certain point, wealth accumulation ceases to be the primary motivator supplanted by wanting to be anointed super genius and savior of the universe.

    • With regards to motivation (profit) question, I can answer it instantly: anything behind a wall, Google can’t scrape/monetise. They’re already having this problem with Facebook, for example, and if more people start doing it, Google will have a lot less content to hoover up and sell ads against. In the worst case scenario (gasp!), Google will be reduced to the place where people find the address of their walled garden of choice. It will revert back to what it started as: a Yellow Pages for the internet. It would still survive, of course, but not at its current size or valuation.

      In the broader context of the post, I find it somewhat amusing that whenever anyone offers normative advice, it always ends up being: “the world would be so much better if everyone was just like me”. As it happens, most people don’t actually want a “free and open” internet. Muslims will object to being painted as rabid, religious fanatics, plus anything they find offensive to their religious beliefs. Jews will take an exception to people venerating Adolf Hitler. Christians – a mixed bunch if ever there was one – will be found objecting to almost anything. Right-wing folks will object to leftist content and vice versa. Sexual content is likely to cause offence, as is violence, even if no one gets hurt (it is all consensual and/or staged) and it is directed only at people interested in such things. Various countries will have various laws as to what is permissible and they need not be imposed in any non-democratic way (an example: years ago, I remember reading about a computer game and noting that in Germany the blood was green – ‘coz they get particular about the whole violence thing – whilst in the UK the female characters had their breasts covered up; in Poland, we got topless females and red blood, leading me to conclude that, despite appearances, I live in one of the saner bits of this world).

      Google occassionally displays a “we’re going to tell you what to do” attitute and this is an example. Whether they (or anyone else) like it or not, when you enter someone’s house (or country), you abide by their rules. I lived in the Middle East for years and learned to follow the local laws and customs, even if I didn’t agree with all of them. It’s high time that internet companies learned to do the same.

  • adamsmith2009

    Really good writing here, David. This is an important part of our Apologia. Google has truly become the Monsanto of the Internet.

  • Few thoughts on this.

    The timing of this appearing isn’t coincidental I suspect. Google are getting a bit of a kicking over here at the moment about their tax avoidance. So this is a bit of an obvious case of “look! over here”.

    They’ve got a bloody cheeky mentioning China as well. Let’s not forget that Google stopped censoring results in China not because of any high-minded ideological principle. It was because they were hacked by a PLA linked group. I think that’s worth pointing out at every point. Google will drop every libertarian principle they supposedly hold if it makes sense for their bottom line. Every time.

    Another interesting parallel with Iraq (and specifically Dick Cheney) is that the big baddie is often those that Google have previously been doing business with. And, much as the dividing up of reconstruction contracts in Iraq did, making it a good place to ‘do business’ is always going to be a major priority. That’s only acceptable if you consider the interests of business to coincide with the people of a country at all times.

    The whole technological utopian propaganda is even more irrelevant considering what’s happening in places like Greece. Let them eat search algorithms.

  • Reminded me of this:

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  • Funny that I stumble on to this site on my Google Chrome web browser. Fantastic article.

    Here is a corporation that is struggling to convince us more and more every day that WE need them, offering us some kind of futuristic, cyber-utopian ideology. The problem with a free flow of information is that it means people want a free flow of everything…as a composer/musician, this scares me, as I invest a lot of time into my art. We could be seeing the destruction of professionalism…

    • David Newhoff

      Thanks for stumbling in, Michael. Oddly enough, from your first sentence, I started to assume this was SPAM, promoting Google Chrome.

      I think people are starting to realize that even though the web is now an intrinsic part of their lives, this does not mean these mega-corporations deserve any less scrutiny and skepticism than any other industry giant in history.

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