Mountain View may finally be tiring of the Montessori preschool model on which the company built its geek playground ethos. The search giant just announced it’s shutting down not only Google Directory, not only Google Toolbar, but all of Google Labs, part of a “spring cleaning” meant to streamline the company and help it focus on “making money from its greatest hits.”
Even more fundamentally, the company is being criticized for the concept and implementation of its informal Do No Evil motto. On the implementation side, and just as a small example, Google has begun putting up banners when it thinks users’ computers are infected with malware. That’s a very noble gesture, except it’s also the precise tactic actual malware uses to trick users into downloading – wait for it – more malware. Security experts have reacted predictably.
But even as a matter of theory, Google’s combination of naive techno-utopianism and corporate exceptionalism is taking a public beating. Evgeny Morozov just published a 7,000+ word book review in The New Republic that is, frankly, brutal. It’s behind TNR’s pay wall but this should give you a sense of the article’s flavor. Keep in mind that “you’re like the neocons” is probably the worst insult you can level at someone in that magazine:
Google’s reductionist talk about evil only cheapens the global discourse about the politics of technology, making the two extremely smart doctoral students who founded the company sound like confused first-graders who overdosed on Kant. Such talk is helpful to understanding the complexity of the online world in the way that the “axis of evil” talk was to understanding the world in the era of George W. Bush. Levy’s detailed account of emergency meetings among Google’s executives unwittingly confirms the similarities. Try replacing “Brin” with “Bush” and “Google” with “America” in the following sentence: “But Brin was adamant: Google was under attack by the forces of evil, and if his fellow executives did not see things his way, they were supporting evil.”
Ultimately, “Don’t Be Evil” makes as much sense as a corporate motto as it does as a motto of American foreign policy: it provides no answers to any of the important questions while giving those who embrace it an illusion of rectitude. Even Levy, for all his hagiographical celebration of Google’s prowess, acknowledges that the company has a “blind spot regarding the consequences” of its actions. That blind spot is entirely self-inflicted. It is very nice that Google employs someone whose job title is “in-house philosopher,” but in the absence of any real desire to practice philosophy such a position seems superfluous and vainglorious.
The point about “in-house” philosophy – and academia more generally – can’t be emphasized enough. In just the last few years, scholars have gone through generic techno-utopianism (“the Internet will create a world without boundaries”) through democratic techno-utopianism (“the blogosphere will flatten hierarchies and give everyone a voice”) through whatever was going on with virtual worlds like Second Life (“people will be able to put on and take off their racial and sexual identities”) and now back to democratic techno-utopianism (“social media will change everything”). It’s a particularly stubborn version of academic Mad Libs, where you just have to pencil in whatever new technology is in the popular press.
Some of that faddishness is just academia’s “reinventing the wheel” problem, which itself is a result of specialization and the pressure young scholars feel to publish before they can get a sense for their fields. But techno-utopianism seems to have unique attraction, maybe because it thinly justifies reinventing the wheel by bracketing decades of empirical and theoretical work. Because this time everything will be different!
Though how that explains Google’s current direction doesn’t seem totally straightforward.