Hey Google! We Need to Talk


Hey Google! Happy Birthday! Now, sit down. We need to talk.

Yes, Google is 20. It’s left its awkward teenage years behind. It needs to put away pubescent experimentation (Google Plus?) and settle down and focus on more serious pursuits, like self-driving planes and engineering the world’s first immortal labrador.

Google makes a lot of great stuff. Its devices, its software, its business services are, by-and-large, excellent. There’s a humble competency to them – they just work. It has such a fantastic track record of doing things better than other providers (remember the great Apple Maps scramble?) that its logo shouldn’t be a cheery typeface with a candy cane colour scheme. It should say ‘We Got This’ in big, boring, black type with Larry Page’s smiling face off to one side.

Like this:

But Google’s greatest accomplishment isn’t tech related at all. It’s its own self-marketing.

Google has positioned itself in a sort of critically impenetrable and otherwise unpopulated middleground between seen and unseen. Noticed and unnoticed. It eschews the showmanship of Apple, the needling ever-presence of Facebook, the carnivorous industry of Amazon. But it’s not completely anonymous, either.

It’s there, for you, when you need it. But otherwise it just keeps itself to itself, tweaking things, upgrading things, quietly helping you out. While you’re off getting muddied and bloodied with Twitter and Reddit, Google’s at home listening to muzak, hand-washing your grass-stained jeans and making your bed. Lost, hungry, sad, bored? Google’s there.

Perhaps our relationship with Google has deeper roots still. It sits above and beyond and behind pretty much everything else. It’s the one common, platform- and individual-agnostic tech company. Google isn’t about being someone. It’s not about personality or identity. We are all Google. Google is everyone. And so, Google is everywhere.  

It’s this stolidity, this soft-touch, grandparental etherealness that’s made Google appear so likeable and trustworthy. It’s the reason that its 20th birthday was toasted with a carousel of puff-pieces commemorating its most memorable doodles, and very little in the way of substantive analysis or comment. It’s also the reason that we let Google poke around the most private, murky, humiliating corners of our lives. That we’re happy asking it for what we want, telling it where we live, letting it listen to us sleep.

It’s also why we’re happy, or maybe just indifferent to the fact it’s bundling up all these observations about who we are and what we want and using them to sell us sugar and summer dresses. As Scott Galloway explained in a now famous talk at Business Insider’s IGNITION conference, what is the act of Googling but the saying of a prayer? A hopeful question to an all-knowing void. Google is taking our prayers, doing what it can to answer them, and then selling them on to drug companies and supermarkets. It’s done this so many times, in so many different ways, that its parent entity Alphabet is now the third biggest company in the world by market cap. It’s made hundreds of billions of dollars monetising our fears and dreams.

It might seem a bold comparison (that doesn’t mean it’s wrong), but isn’t there something faintly Spectre-ish about the way Google operates? An all-seeing, all-controlling entity that’s puppeteering the world from some off-stage location. Its subsidiaries – the claws at the end of its arms – are off off doing the dirty work – blackmailing political leaders and failing to kill James Bond. Meanwhile, Spectre lurks in the distance, plotting, scheming, plucking its all-spanning web.

Can we be evil now?

I’m not accusing Google of being evil. Nor am I saying it wants to hurt or control us, or wield its unprecedented influence anywhere outside of the theatre of voluntary attention…yet. But it should be noted that just six months ago Google erased its own primary moral injunction – ‘Don’t Be Evil’ – from its code of conduct.

It isn’t in itself alarming that Google dropped ‘Don’t Be Evil’ as its credo-cum-tagline. Evil deeds aren’t stopped by taglines…or laws or ethics for that matter. The real cause for alarm is that Google adopted the motto in the first place.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s apply the same logic in a different context. Imagine if the Boy Scouts had written into their constitution ‘don’t kill cats’. We wouldn’t think ‘oh how lovely! Here are the email addresses of everyone I know and love’. We would think ‘were you planning on killing cats?’ Another example. You see a water fountain with a sign on it that says ‘this water is safe’. You’d immediately think it wasn’t. It’s a kind of hardwired reflexive distrust we’ve developed to keep ourselves safe.

Too good to be true?

Again, Google probably isn’t evil. There’s a whole metaphysical argument to be had about whether companies can be evil at all. They’re essentially machines, after all. Cyborgian fusions of technology and living people. Soulless, conscious-less, amoral machines engineered to make profit. The pressing point here is that Google has completely sidestepped our social and psychological failsafes. That’s the real trick of its lighthearted branding, its effortless offerings – to camouflage its machinations of penetration and profit as being for our benefit. A kind of incredibly well-funded, worldwide philanthropy. ‘Don’t worry’, it assures us. ‘Trust us’. And so willingly, casually, we fork over our data.

Every so often it becomes our duty as a society to stop and come together and ask ourselves whether something is good for us. So as Google turns 20, let’s ask ourselves: is Google good for us? Is it good for us that a company, and others like it, has amassed so much influence and power and information?

There’s a growing school of thought (and Galloway might be its headteacher) that says no, it’s not good for us. That it’s socially and economically hazardous to allow businesses to accrue more reach and influence than any democratically-accountable government. Who, in that situation, can hold these business to account? Who can stop them suppressing competition, paying their employees illegally low wages and charging extortionate prices? Maybe even manipulating the elections of those empowered to govern them?

Hey Google! What does absolute power do?

What’s the solution? One idea is picking up steam: break up the tech giants. Dismantle them into their constituent companies – Alphabet into Google Search, YouTube, Android etc. – and force them to compete with one another for resources, ad revenue and audience attention. By removing some of their immense economies of scale, it would also create a more level playing field for their competitors. This would eat into their influence.

It seems like a reasonable idea. But it raises a series of perhaps depressing questions about the ability of domestic governments – some of whom are beginning to turn their back on the world – to rein in multinational companies. If the UK tries to take on Google or Amazon or Apple by itself, they will simply take their business elsewhere, to another country that will welcome their talent, their revenue, and their innovation with open arms, legislative leeway and generous tax breaks.  

What’s needed is high-level international cooperation. A coordinated effort between governments to jointly and evenly monitor, regulate, tax, and perhaps eventually dismantle the major tech players. It’s only through governments working together – agreeing on global action, enforcing common laws – that we can ensure these companies are held accountable and don’t eventually abuse their influence. 

You might disagree that Google and its monolithic peers are dangerous. That’s a valid opinion. Though, I’d like to leave you with one last observation. People and organisations don’t use power slowly. They acquire it slowly; in often imperceptibly small amounts. But once they’ve acquired it, they use it all at once.

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Robert Kellner
Robert Kellner

Rob is a Sci-Fi aficionado, trivia buff, and above all, a great big tech geek. When he's not writing dystopian fiction, he can be found at his full-time job - head of content at leading R&D Tax Credits consultancy, GrantTree.