t byfield on Wed, 13 Jan 2010 11:15:14 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Google

Sorry to break in on yet another scintillating chat about Facebook that's
doomed to arrive where it should have begun, but I thought this might be
of interest to nettimers:


This is genuinely astonishing. The question, I think, is how to approach
it: for example, starting with high-minded principles and working our way
down, or, rather, starting with theater -- and, among many other things,
this is brilliant theater -- and working our way up?

Google's motto, "don't be evil," has sparked endless snark, most of it
about as satisfying as the motto itself. Not so often (never, IIRC) have
I seen anyone acknowledge that, however starry-eyed or ham-handed that
motto may be, it might also be a decent rule of thumb, and that the world
might also be an infinitesimally better place if more corporations
subjected their work to that kind of sanity check every so often. But
underlying much of that snark, I suppose, was the sense (albeit in a
*very* inchoate form) that since we'd never actually see Google make a
clearly defined choice based on this "not-evil" criterion, it was just so
many empty words -- for the most part uttered, irritatingly, by coddled
kids sitting on exercise balls at their desks.

That should be surprising because, surely, Google has been navigating
through a wilderness of mirrors. Most companies can barely manage to
cobble together a product or service, let alone do anything 'innovative.'
And while I'm suspicious of that word, I also know that Google is
painfully aware of the complex relationship between the tools and
techniques it develops and those of its myriad antagonists -- a group
that very much includes governments and gangsters as well as, alarmingly,
their hybrids.

Here we have Google openly speaking in a refractory way about that very
problem. The statement doesn't quite bluntly assert that the Chinese
government is a criminal regime, but it certainly doesn't discourage that
inference either.

You needn't be very cynical to speculate whether Google is, among other
things, dressing up some inevitable revelation that Gmail is insecure,
and/or that there've been specific security breaches with disastrous
repercussions. And nor do you need to be very cynical to think back to
the revelation that Yahoo had been informing on human-rights activists to
the Chinese government. Or to suspect that there's much, much more than
meets the eye here. So, yes, of course, there are some very pragmatic
forces at work here; and Google's statement is performative in ways that
don't conform with the cult of bourgeois social transparency wherein a
speaking subject -- even a corporate subject -- is somehow supposed to
'tell all.'

One of the curious things about Google (and this is true of Facebook
etc., too) is that it's hard to distinguish between 'what they do' and
speech acts, because the two are so closely bound up together. So, in
starting to think about what this statement by Google might *mean*, it's
worth asking: what have they actually done beyond publish a few words?
Maybe more to the point, when might it actually *mean* something for a
multinational to publish a few words?

The Clinton-era joke would be something to the effect of "what do you
mean when you say *mean*?" But it's not really a joke, because the
answer's not that hard: *mean*, in this sense, could mean breaking from
the established program, accepted by oblivious cheerleaders and jaded
critics alike, of maximizing imagined profits -- for example, by
deliberately choosing a course of action that places ethical imperatives
above every other concern. Without recourse to the specious rationale
that, in a market economy, someone else will inevitably do it anyway,

So: could it be that Google has actually taken a step in that direction? 


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