Friday, June 10, 2011

Covert Empires: Why Google Is Not Cute

This is from a little discussion I had the other day.

“I’m not going to dispute the figures, but it’s not like there aren’t dozens of other search engines people could use. Even if you put forward ignorance of alternatives and userbase inertia as components of that dominance, I’m still failing to see how Google is the bad guy here.”

It’s not about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, this is not a Spaghetti Western. You could have Mother Theresa running a thermonuclear weapon company who makes the fabest cutesy pastel Easter-themed neutron bombs, supports anti-African malaria charities, is carbon neutral and who shits hummus-flavored granola. The fact that Larry and Sergei are nice geeky engineers you’d like to have a Red Bull with who don’t really want a monopoly on the world’s communication and knowledge acquisition systems does not change the scaryness of the consolidation of power inherent in Google and similar tech companies. Every dictatorship starts out as a well-meaning revolution.

The “if people don’t like it they can just hop on over to some other search engine” argument is about as naive as the belief that anything like a free market actually exists in the real world. Perhaps in the Ivory Tower where Homo Economicus denizens frolick in ideal worlds hewn of theory, there we might actually have perfect or even functioning competition. It’s nice to theorize about how all inefficiencies and bad aspects of companies get magically worked out by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, but in the real world we have to look at how people actually behave. It’s like saying, “If people don’t like Coke, they can always drink Pepsi.” Don’t like eBay? You can always exert vast amounts of your personal time and energy hand-peddling your products to the 3 billion people on the internet for a fraction of the targeted eyeballs you’d get from eBay. Companies in the search business, like companies in the soft drink business, follow a Power Law distribution, that is, the vast majority of market share is inevitably controlled by a tiny minority of companies, and the barriers to entry of any new entrepreneurial venture into an existing mature industry, such as soft drinks or search, are so immense that the free market competition factor is so distorted it becomes essentially nil, ultimately resulting in a universal attractor state of near-monopoly. Oligopoly, if you like. This is why almost all small businesses ventures are in smaller, non-Power Law sectors (What Nassim Taleb calls “mediocristan”) like restaurants, or are inventing some new business niche who has not yet developed a monopolistic stasis (as the venture capitalist who started Google once did).

This effect goes DOUBLY for internet companies who, on top of the business Power Law, have the monstrous advantage of software lock-in and network lock-in. Software lock-in manifests as the substrata of established code, protocols and API upon which new programs are built become exponentially more difficult to dislodge and revamp as time passes. Network lock-in is best illustrated in the eBay example where the user utility of the service (internet auctions) increases dramatically with increase in user base, thus creating a winner-take-all feedback loop causing the company with the most users to become the Master Node for that particular market. The best utility for auctions (most eyeballs, cheapest prices) can be garnered via eBay, so users will naturally continue to flock there until either they shut down for whatever reason or people stop wanting to auction their stuff off (not likely). In the case of Facebook, since they've become the only SN game in town, "opting out" puts you at a crippling networking disadvantage in the business sector, and leaves you out of the conversations and connections between friends and family near and far. Ultimately this free market spiel "I can leave anytime" is an illusion of choice: for their particular service there is no competition and the opportunity costs are so great that many simply cannot afford to choose abstinence. In the same way that nobody had to go around with a prod "forcing" people and businesses to get online: the internet simply became so ubiquitous you either got with the cyber-program or you got left in the dust(bins).

The Google of the pre-ubiquitous-internet era was of course Microsoft, who controlled 90% marketshare of OS and productivity software (90%… seeing a pattern here? ). So Google dominating the search and online ad market (and recommendation engine market and self-driving cars and libraries, and…) is not some unexpected Black Swan out of left field. Thing is, it gets scary when they start branching out into email, mobile phones, mobile OSes, and via the Google suite of online docs spreadsheets etc. they’re trying to SUBSUME all of Microsft’s necropolising empire. And they’re not stopping there.

And it’s a misleading misnomer to say that Google’s business is search, especially at this point in their evolution. Their real business is information filtering. That is, using Google search is actually NOT unbiased when you examine their actual ranking methods closely. The #1 search results are not determined by some democratic pagerank devoid of external influence: the #1 site for any given term is regularly auctioned off, often for millions in high-value words like “smartphone” or “luxury car”. Their business is already fundamentally one of manipulation of the flow of information for their own profit, like an astronomically expensive dating service connecting consumers with businesses. During theGulf incident, BP bought up the “premium result” positions of every keyword permutation remotely associated with “oilspill” or “BP”, effectively rearranging the information ecosystem to suit their interests, buying reality. And that’s not some aberration; almost every common-language word is bought and paid for.

Now add the fact that they Google is “personalizing” each individual’s search, effectively *deciding* for us what we *should* be viewing based on the gargantuan dossier of information on each and every one of us that they collect including our browsing habits to our location spacetime-graph to our friends (which they’re datamining out of Facebook: a synergy of panopticons!) which makes any Chinese dictator or the NSA’s Echelon look like small town cops. I mean really, Big Brother is here, it’s just unevenly recognized. Of course they’re not telling us exactly what’s in these “recommendation engine” filters, and who knows the degree to which moneyed interests are leaning on and coloring those filters on our eyes, selling our little “Google bubbles” of consensus reality to the highest bidder. Maybe someone slips Google a nice chunk of change and the filters suddenly discover you really really like Nike over Addidas. Maybe Google decides that you really really don’t want to be reading about the incidences of cancer caused by some new 8G phone. Maybe you discover searches for the opponent of a Wall Street-backed political candidate starts returning scandals and swift-boat like smear articles on them in the news results. I suppose if we are to believe Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, they’ll soon be deciding “what we’ll be doing next”, which ultimately translates into, “what you’ll buy next”, and “who you’ll vote for next”. But, hey, maybe this multibillion dollar corporation is just a bunch of really nice guys, right!?

“Sounds more like a fishing expedition than an effort to fix a clear and observable problem to me… one that will tie up the company’s resources and energies in proving its innocence.”

Or, you know, maybe you’re just making an assumption. Perhaps Google has successfully warped your mind into believing all their press releases and that their search algorithms are “completely unbiased!” just like they say. Perhaps you’ve been convinced that they’re not some megaglomerate corporation whose top priority of maximization of profit, that they’re actually “Not Evil” as their cutesy little slogan purports. They certainly invest massive amounts of resources and energy into the PR to develop that image.
Google doesn’t need to “control every bit of information that comes into your house” like some brute-force authoritarian censor-state like China. No, their method of control is much more elegant and effective. You don’t even *know* the manipulation is happening: you just accept that what pops up in Google’s results is what’s reality, because we can’t actually see behind Google’s one-way mirrors into their algorithms to tell. (Damn that big dumb Microsoft challenging poor little anti-authoritarian rebel altruistic geeky Google!)

As a commenter aptly put it: “Perhaps the main thing that scares me about Google is that it doesn’t scare me. They’ve managed to become a worldwide mega-corp without doing anything to raise my suspicions or make me doubt their ‘don’t be evil’ motto.”

And if your goal is to dominate the means of communication and information acquistition, and thus potentially information itself, then paving your path with a facade of “good intentions” so that people don’t take notice of you is par for the course.

And even if Larry and Sergei really are just cute little idealistic Silicon Valley crunchy-granolas who truly just believe “information wants to be free”, that doesn’t mean the CEOs and The Money behind Google will always be so benign. Again, it’s not about good and bad, but about the *potential* ugliness: that is the scary thing. If you’re worried about Orwell’s 1984 scenarios not self-defeating, you have to look no further than the non-reflective screen of your Android Phone’s default search engine.

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