Harry J. Bentham
IEET, 10 October 2014
Google Inc.’s 2013 book The New Digital Age, authored by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, was showered with praise by many, but attacked in a review by Julian Assange for the New York Times, where it is described as a “love song” from Google to the US state. Also addressed in Assange’s subsequent book When Google Met WikiLeaks, Google’s book makes an unconvincing effort to depict the internet as a double-edged sword, both empowering (p. 6) and threatening our lives (p. 7).
The popular internet, Google argues, might help defeat the US’s “authoritarian” opponents, but also threatens to aid “terrorism” (p. 9) (Google’s word for cypherpunks and anti-statists) against the US itself. Thus, Google argues, the internet is potentially disruptive and harmful to US national security priorities – as is the possibility of individuals being personally empowered by technology. Google laments the “anarchy” being caused by the “agents of chaos”: generations of tech-savvy individuals armed with modern personal technologies (p. 46-47, 59, 207-208). Anonymous and other clans of hackers, we are told, “might as well be terrorists” (p. 151-182).
This is fairly consistent with the ideas of former President George W. Bush, who famously warned graduates at West Point that the gravest danger to the United States is “at the crossroads of radicalism and technology.” This point of view, alongside its knuckle-dragging obsession with defeating “rogue states” and “terrorists”, places Google’s apparent value-system unambiguously within the neoconservative ideological camp. The case for “guiding” the path of the internet (p. 11, 36-39), in particular, sounds equally shy and unsustainable as the authoritarian regimes (p. 6) Google claims to oppose.
The prediction, “as global connectivity continues its unprecedented advance, many old institutions and hierarchies will have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete, irrelevant to modern society” (p. 6) is accurate, if inconsistent with the vast amount of Google’s thesis in the rest of the book. The descriptions of the internet as the “largest experiment involving anarchy” and “the world’s largest ungoverned space” (p.3) also fit into this category, as communication technologies “reallocate the concentration of power away from states and transfer it to individuals” (p.6, p. 82-83).
However, apparently unaware of how ironic it would later sound coming from them, Google tries to educate us about the importance of maintaining privacy to keep the public confident in digital platforms as aids for living an efficient life (p. 16). Also ironic, Google decries the fear by governments of their citizens being anonymous (p. 33), even though Google is the most active corporation trying to thwart online anonymity and everyone knows this. Google also describes the transparency caused by data permanence as a “dangerous model”, and tries to be an apologist for authoritarian regulations that “govern who gets to make the decision about what is classified and what it not” (p. 40). Oddly, Google completely fails to realize how arbitrary this is and how paradoxical it is to its own thesis in the book.
More irony for the reader to enjoy is apparent when Google warns us of what will happen in “authoritarian regimes”, and goes on to basically describe what is only being forced on us by the United States (p. 60-63). For example, “the handsets that citizens have with them at all times will double as the surveillance bugs regimes have long wished they could put into people’s homes” (p. 60). According to Google, the United States will never intercept emails without permission, even though Google knew the United States to be doing so at the time of writing (p. 115-116). Also, “people living under these conditions will be left to fend for themselves against the tag team of their government and its corrupt corporate allies” (p. 62). Google must have been talking about themselves, as I can find no other corporation that meets that description and is in that kind of relationship with a repressive regime. Also of note, “rights organizations that document repressive surveillance tactics will call for better citizen protection” (p. 68). Evidently, those organizations don’t include Google, but they do include WikiLeaks, which Google sees as “dangerous”.
What is stated in the book’s pages against WikiLeaks (p. 41-42) is basically Google’s declaration of support for the most outdated and asinine pro-censorship arguments. A “central body” must control and supervise the release of all information to the public, they argue, without realizing this is no different than any speech Gaddafi might have made. Also, for all the book’s talk of authoritarian regimes being sclerotic and clumsy in the age of the internet, Google fails to acknowledge that the US government’s own inflexible and clumsy spying tactics would be to blame if any agents got killed as a result of disclosures and whistleblowing.
Despite my many disagreements with the book, I’m mostly with Google throughout the course of Chapter 1 (p. 13-31). One prediction that matches a lot of highly progressive futurist discourse, including my own, is that digital technology, combined with 3-d printers, will “definitely have an impact on the developing world”, and open source templates eliminate the problematic reliance on vast supply chains and the inequality caused by them (p. 15-16). However, we don’t see much analysis beyond that one token reference to combating poverty. It must also be added that Google quickly contradicts this bright vision, recycling the fallacy that intellectual property must be ruthlessly protected for purposes of innovation (p. 99). Google also offers a bright vision of advancing AI and robotics that the singularitarian reader will enjoy, yet makes only a single passing reference to the singularity in the whole book (p. 201).
In presenting its grand vision for the world, Google makes a weak and clichéd argument that all-too familiar centralized forms of globalization, which only drain resources into already disproportionately wealthy centers of the world, will “help countries discover their competitive advantage”. This is despite the fact that intellectual participation alone by poorer strata of the world will never compensate for not physically possessing resources and advanced technologies like the US and other rich countries. Omitted in Google’s analysis, is the fact that radically redistributing all wealth and means of production would also be necessary to achieve the “leveling of the playing field for talent” they promise, and just connecting poor nations to the internet will never be enough to really achieve that aim (p. 19-20).
In fact, if we’re going to look at this situation with a critical eye, it is likely that solely connecting billions of impoverished people to the internet will only inspire global rage against the injustices maintained by the US and its corporate oligarchs. Starving populations in Africa won’t be able to eat data, but they will certainly be able to find plenty of new means of getting revenge against the people who have more wealth than them. Silicon Valley itself is a reflection of the greatest injustice in the world – a profuse concentration of wealth and technology that the US fails to share adequately and uses to legitimize its unjust economic and political hegemony.
No, the world’s poor people will not use virtual reality to distract themselves from their poverty and starvation, as naively predicted by Google (p. 24), but will use it to become aware of the injustices that must be avenged and corrected. This is just one paradox in the neoliberal hypothesis at the heart of Google’s book, in which ever-expanding middle classes in the developing world are seen not as the increasingly politically active and radicalized masses they are, but as waiting customers. In reality, the digital awakening being pioneered by Google and other tech giants is making more people aware of the United States’ duplicity and exploitation in the world, and capable of challenging it.
Asinine national loyalties are rife throughout Google’s book. After insisting that Assange is harmful, Google proceeds to celebrate Alexei Navalny, a dwarf in the anti-censorship battle compared with Assange, for no reason other than that Navalny criticizes the Russian government rather than the US government (p. 45). Their rationale for this is never explained, and yet further examples of special pleading and hypocrisy are found throughout their book. Completely missing the significance of the Chelsea Manning controversy, the book claims it is unfair that Manning gets sympathy for leaking US information but would not get sympathy if she had been a defector from North Korea or Iran (p. 47).
For those unaware, the Manning leak is important to the US public because it exposed an atrocity committed by the US. The key there is US – as in, the US people should care if the US government is machine-gunning civilians, more than they should care if the North Koreans or Iranians are doing so. Apparently, Google fails to comprehend the importance of any disclosure that doesn’t merely add to and reinforce the propaganda against North Korea and Iran that the US public is already being fed on a daily basis. This continues throughout the book, with Google demonstrating special pleading fallacy after special pleading fallacy, asserting over and over again that other countries can’t justify their state secrets, but the US can (p. 47).
US enemies are treated with contempt in the book, while the United States’ most violent and reprehensible allies are treated with reverence in the book. Even Saudi Arabia, far more repressive than Iran, is merely cited in a “cautionary” story against dissident activity (p. 56-57). Countries attempting to rebuild the internet to prevent it revolving around the United States and US tech giants armed with a global off-switch are treated as paranoid dictatorships by Google, without any justification (p. 83).
At one point, the book even gives an exact summation of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, “subject to different laws and vulnerable to indeterminate detention, extrajudicial killings, the absence of due process, and all manner of restrictions on their civil and human liberties”, but Israel’s name is curiously not mentioned there. Instead, we get hypothetical situations in which Iran might do these things, without any evidence that it has (p. 101-185). China is later subjected to the same crude propaganda in the book (p. 184-185). A cruder example of obvious hypocrisy and bigotry in the book appears when Google laments the Palestinian “terrorist” group Hamas’s “propaganda tactics” of circulating video of Israeli atrocities in Gaza (p. 189), yet a few pages later Google spews worse propaganda by talking fondly about an atrocity video circulated during the Iranian protests of 2009 (p. 192).
One of the worst fallacies constructed by Google in the book comes in their attempt to depict three different national censorship models, the first supposedly blatant, the second moderate, and the third supposedly liberal. The Chinese model, described as “blatant” censorship, is based on protecting national interests and social order, and is openly acknowledged by the state (p. 86-87). Supposedly on the other end of the spectrum is the German model, described as “politically and culturally accepted filtering”. However, if we examine it properly, it is exactly the same as the Chinese one, again based on protecting national interests and social order (p. 88-89). Upon close examination, we find that Google has merely used buzzwords to try and depict Chinese censorship as somehow socially unacceptable for the reader, while depicting Germany’s identical censorship model as acceptable. Even if I personally take the view that China is a paranoid state with respect to mobile apps and websites, Google’s analysis of its inferiority to Germany is fallacious, convoluted, unscholarly, and lacking in any substance whatsoever.
How does Google justify the supposedly “socially acceptable” state censorship model of Germany? It cites the Malaysian government to say “compliance with the law is not to be construed as censorship” (p. 89). In reality, “compliance with the law” precisely describes censorship in all its forms, and is no more of a liberal model of censorship than exists in China or even North Korea. All that Google has done, with this supposed comparative study of different censorship models, is try to mislead the reader into agreeing with German law and disagreeing with Chinese law, using nothing more than buzzwords against the Chinese system and no sound analysis.
The overall thesis of The New Digital Age consists of special pleading that only the US can justify censorship or state secrets, and that only the United States should be sheltered from the anarchic political influences unleashed by the internet. The rest of the book is fluff to elongate the word count and make Google look like an authority whose political opinions should carry more weight than the average blogger, and almost every claim made in the book turned out to be false within months of publication.
Harry J. Bentham is a British writer, an IEET contributor, and futurist member of the scientific Lifeboat Foundation. He has authored well-received sci fi stories, book reviews and essays on science and culture that can be found at a growing number of diverse publications.