Of Winston Smith and the Ministry of Google

Among the [tag]geek[/tag] mainstream, if not the geek congnoscenti, it seems, if I may speak generally, (and it’s my blog, so I shall) Microsoft equals "bad." [tag]Google[/tag] equals "good." Yahoo? It probably equal’s "meh." I’m putting these terms in quotes, as I believe in this case, they are all relative terms.

Why? Google is a ginormous, for-profit, public corporation, and as such, it’s primary goal is to make money for its shareholders. Ditto Microsoft. So why is Google "cool" while other corporate entities are not, even labeled by some as "evil?" Particularly when it looks more and more like the Google technical hegemony is the one we should be worrying about.

Disclosure: I admit, Google has become one of my favorite punching bags, if for no other reason than I just tend to be suspicious of something that everyone else loves to the point of near lunacy. It is the default setting for the the relevant DIP switch in my brain.

And Google is to the Internet what Apple is to hardware. There are a number of rational arguments to be made against them or valid criticisms that can be made, but they have developed such a following among the fanboys and girls that any criticism of them seems to be the modern-day equivalent of heresy. One risks being labeled a witch and burned at the stake (no one expects the Sergey Inquistion!). It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about – Apple could put their logo on a piece of fecal matter – the iTurd – and people would line up the night before it went on sale down at the Apple Store to be the first to purchase one. Same with Google – as soon as it released the gTurd API, or browser plug-in or whatever, the tech blogs would be ablaze with delighted reviews and ensuing discussion.

I suppose I like to pick on Google in particular because a)it’s guaranteed to get a rise out of members of the fan culture, and b) I lived in Sillycon Valley at the peak of the dot-com boom, when the founders of Google were revered. Literally likened unto Gods. I’ve even been exposed to the fan-boy culture first-hand. I was at a party once in Mountain View, California – Google ground zero – shortly after I moved to the Bay Area, and [tag]Sergey Brin[/tag] showed up. A hush went over the party crowd, and it parted in deference as he walked in like Moses Parting the Waters. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. It wasn’t as if Biblical figure had entered the room – but definitely like a rock star had. People were trying to be cool and nonchalant and failing miserably, hushed deference mingled with stifled squeals of delight.

Myself, I had just relocated from hell on Earth, a.k.a. Sedona, Ariz., having finally freed myself from hell’s many psychotic minions and my servitude at the Hell Red Rock News and narrowly averting self destruction. This would have been early 2000. I had been invited to this party by a friend who had already been living in the Bay Area for sometime, and she was hip to such things. She promptly wandered off as soon as we got there, leaving me to my own devices. I didn’t know a soul, but was doing my best to mingle (excuse me, I mean "network"). When Brin showed up, I asked who he was. "That’s Sergey Brin," whispered the marketing type person I had been talking with.

Who’s that?" I whispered back. She looked at me with a mixture of wonder, pity, and disgust, kind of like I imagine British explorers at the height of the Empire would look at so-called savages in their far-flung colonies. "The co-founder of Google," she whispered, in much the same exasperated tone of voice one might use to correct an idiot man-child who can’t grasp the concept of a toilet, no matter how many times you explain it (sorry, but I like this analogy better than the explorer/savage).

"Oh, the search engine on the Internet?" I replied. Of course I knew what Google was, but at this point I was stringing my conversation companion along, playing the role of ignorant red-neck small-town reporter she had created for me. One must derive amusement where one can. This question, of course, didn’t even merit a response beyond a roll of the eyes.

So yeah, there’s that. Then there is the fact that Google now frequently shows me pages without my actual search terms in it. Apparently these are pages that Google "thinks" I might want to see, based on my terms and likely colored by whatever data is in the profile associated with my IP address, and whatever its advertising-driven algorithms think I should see. That drives me nuckin’ futs. I want to see pages with my actual search terms in them; that’s why I used those terms. But then the same thing seems to happen with the other big search engines these days; all Google wanna-bes. I’ve been trying to use Wikia Search, but then I end up back at Google or Yahoo more often than not if I fail to find what I seek on Wikia.

Now, none of this would bother me nearly so much, even when the [tag]fan boy[/tag]s go on about how wonderful [tag]Android[/tag] or how [tag]Chrome[/tag] will change the browser game, or that Sergey and Larry Page’s farts smell like sandalwood and rose petals, if it weren’t for the fact that Google is a giant corporate behemoth. Sure, maybe back in the day the goal was to make the Internet easier for everyone to use – don’t forget the now famous part of the mission statement, "do no evil" – but once a company goes public, it’s primary goal is to make money for its stockholders. At this, Google excels. At some point, making money conflicts with the rest of the lah-de-dah, feel-good mission. I’m not saying that making money is inherently evil; I don’t believe it is. But the fact remains that making money is often odds with what might be ethically and morally the best choices.

An aside: I wanted to look up that "do no evil" part of the Google mission statement and quote it directly. I unwittingly typed in the term "google" and "do no evil" (in quotes, so I would get pages with that exact phrase, ostensibly) – in Google, naturally. And gosh, look what happened with the very first link. Gee whiz, who would have thought this would happen. Irony of ironies:

Anyway, turns out it is "don’t be evil," and is in the Google Code of Conduct.

So, the point of my meandering diatribe is the review of this book, [tag]Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?[/tag] by one [tag]Greg Conti[/tag] (security tech geeks no doubt recongize this name), that I read on Slashdot (having seen a related post on ye olde Boing Boing). Actually, not so much the point as the kindling that sparked this flaming diatribe. Just the other day, I was arguing about the merits of Google’s mobile OS, Android, with my old friend and current house mate Vern, one of the few people I know who is geekier/nerdier than I. Naturally, I played the part of the Nattering Nabob of Negativity (stick with what yer good at). Vern thought it was cool that there was an "open" source mobile phone OS, and he just might have to upgrade if/when Sprint ever comes out with its version (currently slated for sometime in ’09). Vern already uses G-mail, of course, and is rocking the Chrome browser, having forsaken Opera (speaking of heresy). Being a curmudgeon, I had to point out that this is just one more step in Google’s march toward corporate hegemony of information technology, and thus, the verbal game was afoot.

Needless to say, I’m adding this book to my reading list. And will likely be revisiting this topic here on the mental masturbatory exercise that is this blog.

Shameless self promotion: this is not the first time I’ve poked fun at teh Google on the Intertubes. From the Jeff Chappell/Electronic News archives, I give you:

Google Gets Googled, Cows Get Cow Chips

Put that in a Chrome browser tab and smoke … er, Google it.

I’m not advocating necessarily that people shouldn’t use Google and its myriad services. Rather, just don’t be hypocritical and sing the praises of Google while slagging other corporate behemoths — say, Micro$oft (and this is not to say that my good pal Vern does this – he’s not a fan boy or a hypocrite by any stretch – he makes a good case for the use of Chrome purely on its technical merits, for example). It’s just another corporate Juggernaut out to make its shareholders rich – again not that there is anything inherently wrong with that, particularly if they do so by providing products and services that work as advertised. Heck, I use Yahoo for my e-mail and web host, after all.

I don’t even necessarily have an ethical problem with Google using the data it gathers on me and everyone else to try and sell us crap we don’t need, despite the obvious [tag]privacy[/tag] issues, as long as they are up front about it. Where it becomes a problem is when Big Brother at the Department of Justice comes knocking, looking for that information in the interest of "protecting" us. How soon until FISA and the "Patriot" Act extend to the Internet?

Oh that’s right, Obama will save us … speaking of fanboy culture … but that’s a (frequent) topic I’ve already beat to death, and on which corpse I will not doubt beat on some more over the course of the next four years, so I’ll let that go for now, and return to the topic at hand.

Just think of the book Orwell would write today had he been a member of Generation X, growing up with computers and the Internet. We would have 2024, instead of 1984, and Winston Smith would work at the Ministry of Google.

"Don’t be evil." I wonder if Google will remember what that means in the future.