Google me, Google me not

Josh Booth
February 10, 2013

the dominated (whose most extreme example is the slave)  is, at least tendentially, without a name. Even if, during his lifetime  and in limited arenas among those close to him, a sequence of phonemes serves to designate him, this sequence is insufficient to compose a name

— Luc Boltanski, On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation, p.153

A fortnight ago Eric Schmidt took to the stage  in Cambridge to preach hellfire and brimstone. He opened by describing a  dystopian society shut off from the world – one whose population is  kept in ignorance by an all-powerful state. This was hell, we were  supposed to think. It was the kind of place whose nameless inhabitants  must be known only by a number. It was, of course, North Korea.

Schmidt has recently returned  from the country after one of multiple visits to quasi-dystopian  internet black-spots around the world. His journey was a pilgrimage fit  for a prophet of “connectivity”, the religion he has been both  practising and preaching with the 20% of work time that each of Google’s  employees is able to allocate to projects of personal importance. In  the first five minutes of his talk, at breathless pace, he zoomed in on  Mexico’s drug-blooded streets, post-civil-war Chad and the Great Firewall of China.  No matter where he took us, increased connectivity would be an  overwhelming force for good, even factoring in the benefit that the “bad  guys” hiding in caves would derive from the virtual world. Presumably  in none of these places did Schmidt suffer the ignominy of someone not  knowing his name, even in the Google-less hell of the DPRK.

But as smoothly as his sermon was delivered, his performance was  unsettling. True to the role Schmidt was performing, his speech was  riddled with concepts he clearly took to be polar opposites: the good  and the bad, the democratic and the autocratic, the virtual and the  physical.

It must be reassuring to see the world in black and white – in digital ones and zeros. To see through Google lenses that divide action into the binaries of good and evil, legal and illegal. Schmidt’s answer to a question about Google’s controversial tax arrangements  was that the company would pay whatever the law said it should pay.  Google, Schmidt implied, behaved just as any law-abiding citizen would;  its actions were on the right side of the law.

But of course the law really isn’t the same for everyone – and that’s  what makes Google’s tax avoidance strategies seem outrageous. If you’re  not a member of the international technical elite like Eric Schmidt,  the law constrains you in ways that it doesn’t constrain Google:  legality is no obstacle when you can simply change the law you are  subject to by changing the jurisdiction  in which you conduct your business. The world may seem to be divided  into legal and illegal in the same way for everyone, everywhere, but in  practice we all have a different relationship to the rules.


What members of a dominant class implicitly share, in the  form of common knowledge that they cannot avow to others – which they  can scarcely avow to themselves – is, on the one hand, that it is  indispensable that there should be rules – law, procedures, norms,  standards, regulations and so forth; and, on the other, that one can do  nothing really profitable (translated into their language: ‘really  useful’), that one simply cannot act, in an uncertain world, if one  follows these rules

— On Critique, p.146

The corporate reality that Google’s motto “Don’t be evil”  reveals is precisely the self-deception that the morally wrong course  of action is evident to everyone. That such a straightforward  categorical imperative can serve as a clear guide. Google’s actions, of  course, betray the truth that it’s not that simple – that widely  accepted norms may have to be skirted around, re-articulated or  reinvented in order to get done what you feel must be done. What’s  worrying is the evident process of contamination followed by  purification: the hand infringes widely-accepted norms; the brain  reinterprets these norms to legitimate the hand’s actions; and the  mouth, Schmidt, declares with genuine conviction that the hand has  followed the same norms as everyone else.

Maybe we shouldn’t care. This is, after all, how big corporations  operate. Maybe we should draw the head’s attention to the hand’s  actions, whilst also drawing the attention of those outside the  corporation – politicians, lawyers – who are capable of restraining the  hand (or cutting it off altogether). But maybe it’s less the  norm-bending that should worry us and more the attitude towards it.

Schmidt’s apparent failure to acknowledge that actually some norms do  have to be bent or broken to achieve what we must, or what we should,  can only reinforce the company’s ignorance about its own impact on those  who can’t so easily bend or break norms. Of course, the norms of the  internet are presented as norms of openness and civility, of  data-sharing and enlightened progress. They are norms that no-one should  need or want to bend or break in order to benefit. This isn’t all  bluff: there are many aspects of the internet’s architecture – its  accessibility, its ungovernability – that make it a genuinely public  space of the kind that, in the democratic, Western “physical” world (as  Schmidt repeatedly referred to it), has been closed up to the point  where its re-occupation has become an almost revolutionary symbolic gesture.

But assuming that these utopian properties of the virtual will bring  about a world with less disadvantage is misguided. It’s an assumption  that rests on another of Schmidt’s binaries: that of the physical and  the virtual. There is no great firewall between the two, as Schmidt  apparently likes to think. The norms according to which the offline  world operates – and all the privacy, privilege and poverty of the  physical that they create – impinge on the virtual every time a human  interacts with a computer. Being able to bend or break these  norms of the physical world is, and will increasingly be, crucial to  getting ahead in Google’s virtual utopia. Our offline relationship to  the rules will, contrary to Schmidt’s faith, inevitably help determine  how much we benefit from Google’s online revolution.

The most worrying moment in Schmidt’s talk was a simple observation  that unwittingly illustrated this point. As the virtual increases its  share of the real, Schmidt told us, the networks that crystallise around  us will depend more and more on the form that our online identity  takes. Scare stories about facebook warning  that online identities can harm our job prospects or our offline  relationships are familiar. But at a simpler level, the likelihood that  prospective employers, collaborators, will even be able to find us, or  to stumble upon us, will be determined significantly by our online  presence.

In the future that Schmidt prophesied, a future that is really  already present, we will have to be search-engine optimised. Because the  uniqueness of our name will determine how high up a Google search  ranking we come. The value of our name will become the value of a  number.


… it is likely that learning a ‘relativist’ relationship  to the rules is facilitated today by the experience of members of the  dominant class, whose formation and professional activity have, on  account of their international character, had the effect of leading them  to pursue their objectives by exploiting variegated systems of often  contradictory rules

— On Critique, p.146

Parents who, like Schmidt, are either part of or close to the  technical elite who know the rules according to which our virtual world  will be run – parents who, like Schmidt, have recognised the importance  of search-engine-optimising ourselves – will begin to bend and change  the norms of naming. Instead of following naming conventions – the  ancestral, the biblical, the affective – that have become the norm over  centuries, they will, at least in part, choose names for their children  based on the Google ranking they correspond to. Through the sequence of  phonemes serving to designate the sons and daughters of the global  elite, numbers will start to be visible.

Weird and wonderful monikers will be dragged up from obscure passages  in inaccessible literature or from rarely-spoken foreign languages.  Google employees’ Finnegans and Philemons will have no problem in the school playground alongside their colleagues’ Brünnhildes and Parzivals.  Among a global elite whose knowledge, and more importantly  foreknowledge, of the workings of search engines is shared, the norms  can easily be broken and remade. Since they and their children live out  their lives in the same physical locations,  embedded in the same physical networks as technicians like Schmidt who  set the rules of the new virtual world, their norm-breaking will not be  singled out as madness. Their offspring are unlikely to become the  subject of ridicule. And all because they share a particular  relationship to the rules of the virtual: they are the ones who make them.

Advantage doesn’t come to these virtual rule-setters because they set  the rules to their advantage, but simply because their relationship to  the rules allows them to pre-empt what they will have to do to get ahead  in the brave new world they are creating. The norms they must discard  to do so are easy to shed when everyone around them – or simply everyone as they see it – is doing the same. It’s this perfectly innocent and unmalicious collusion that allows social theorist Luc Boltanski to see the Schmidts of this world as part of a new dominant class.


[the critic of existing norms] asks to be followed by  others, real individuals, who are her contemporaries. But this also  contains a risk, for, if she finds no one to follow her; if a group is  not formed around the cause whose advocate she makes herself, her words  and deeds can be disqualified as eccentricity or madness (paranoia)

On Critique, p.100

And what about parents unlike Schmidt? Parents who have not  given or been to a Cambridge lecture about virtual identity, or whose  children’s friends’ parents are unaware of the way in which Google  shapes our lives according to our names? Will they find it as easy to  break the norms of the physical world that govern naming – norms  enforced by the fear of ridicule? Will they be prepared to sacrifice the  childhood happiness of their Finnegan so that he has better employment  prospects when he is thirty?

Unless they spend their lives among others who will do the same, it  will surely be much more difficult for parents who don’t have Schmidt’s  offline “connectivity” to search-engine-optimise their offspring – at  least to begin with. Unable to justify their eccentric naming practices  by appeal to common knowledge within their existing social networks  about Google page ranking, they will have to fight much harder to bend  existing norms into alignment with a virtual future. The “physical”  communities in which they spend their time – communities detached from  the technicians who set the rules of the new virtual world – and the  norms they uphold will constrain them while the already-connected global  elite use their existing non-virtual springboard to leap ahead.  Undoubtedly the leap ahead has already begun, years ago, when families  like Schmidt’s brought their children into a world whose future contours  they could read in the zeroes and ones of the then-nascent virtual  world.

It’s rhetorically tempting to paint this as a dystopian future where  names are reduced to numbers, where a small number of technocrats have  the resources to enrich themselves while the majority are left behind: a  Google-governed North Korea. Of course this would be a wild  exaggeration: a name is unlikely to cast your child into near-slavery,  and I have only chosen the example of naming because it simply  illustrates the problem with Schmidt’s thinking. But recognising the dystopian potential  of connectivity – and specifically the way in which the virtual world  may exacerbate existing inequalities in the physical world – is a  crucial responsibility of the companies that rule from Silicon Valley.

Schmidt did make one reassuring remark towards the end of his talk  about Google’s responsibility to its employees. Employees could no  longer be attracted by high salaries alone, Schmidt said; it was also  important to ensure that the values of the company reflected their  values – that the interests of shareholders weren’t the only interests  driving Google’s business. We can only hope that some of these employees  will keep one foot outside the global technical elite of accountants,  investment bankers and computer scientists, planting it firmly in the  physical environments in which most of us live our lives, detached from  the knowledge that would allow us to break norms in ways that don’t, as  social theorist Luc Boltanski puts it, lead our words and deeds to be  disqualified as eccentricity or madness.

Unfortunately it seems that Silicon Valley is fast becoming a  physical dystopia in which all but the global technical elite are priced  out. Google employees are invading the Bay Area that many would once  have described as though it were a natural physical utopia. The relative  deprivation this is creating, as described by Rebecca Solnit in a recent article,  is very real, very physical. It is already the world we are living in,  and Schmidt doesn’t need to go to North Korea to find it. It’s on his  doorstep.


All by
Josh Booth