Google, in its mission, famously aspires to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But a mission is a mission, not a modus operandi. Examining what Google does, rather than what it aims to do, reveals the surprisingly conservative role it actually plays in the world.
In principle Google imagines itself a progressive, even revolutionary, organization, which through information technology brings about change, specifically change in line with liberal democratic freedom. The ideas of cyber-utopianism – that certain technologies are liberating in a particular kind of way, and should be deployed to achieve those ends – constitute the conceptual foundation upon which the public myth of Google rests.
In practice Google behaves much more conservatively. By this I do not mean that it has a particular reactionary political or social agenda. Instead, I mean that Google generally respects rather than repudiates traditions and institutions, takes the “is” as the “ought”, and by doing so perpetuates and legitimates the existing order in a given context despite (and often at the immediate expense of) its mission.
Often this conservatism manifests through the simple everyday practices of its engineers. Earlier this semester I attended a talk by a lead developer for Google Products who described the technical challenges of running a shopping aggregator online. Afterwards a student raised his hand. He was from Wyoming, he said, and he had long relied on Google Products to buy guns and ammunition. However, since May, Google had prevented him from doing so, despite the fact that he was legally licensed to own and operate them. How and why did Google make that decision?
The engineer explained, with a matter-of-fact air, that Google didn’t want to sell anyone anything which they may not be legally be able to have in their locale. Their guidelines were not only law, but policy: specifically advertising policy. If AdWords wouldn’t advertise it in a given location, then Google wouldn’t sell it there.
Judging by this statement our engineer seems to think of law and policy much like he thinks of coding libraries: neutral tools, facts, and standards which he can import and reference to do work for him. After all, why should he reinvent geographically specific distribution limitations any more than he should reinvent the while loop? This rationale is perfectly reasonable, profoundly conservative, and conceals messy regulations behind clean code.
Sometimes Google articulates its support for order, as when it began blocking ThePirateBay from appearing as prominently in search. A Google spokesperson defended the move technocratically, saying that “this measure is one of several that we have implemented to curb copyright infringement online.” No longer does Google present Search as an impartial exercise of algorithmic objectivism (query, pilgrim, and the truth shall be revealed). Instead, having embraced an editorial intermediary role, Google submits to, reproduces, and further legitimates the dominant legal and cultural paradigms.
Some may see this as Google simply abiding by the law. That may be so. My point is it’s hard to reconcile such a method with the Google mission. Whereas Google’s mission is progressive and empowering (it will universally distribute the tools of information so the people may do what they will), Google’s practice is conservative and paternalistic (…unless you might do something unacceptable, in which case you’re out of luck).
In the gap between Google’s principles and practice we find again the answer to the question posed by Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith in Who Controls the Internet? As Wu and Goldsmith argued in 2006, early cyber-utopians such as Johnson & Post and John Perry Barlow were admirably aspirational but ultimately incorrect in their belief that, as Johnson and Post put it, the Internet would be “[separated from] doctrine tied to territorial jurisdictions [such that] new rules will emerge.”
Instead the precise opposite has occurred. Whatever its transformative effects may be, the Internet has not broken down the walls of country, culture, and law. To the contrary, it has been subjected to their inexorable emergence into a new medium. To borrow terms from Evgeny Morozov, this “realist” or “agnostic”, rather than utopian, understanding is the one borne out by what Google actually does. One need look no further than Google’s decision to block “Innocence of Muslims” from YouTube in Libya and Egypt after the recent embassy attacks. The complex and potentially life-altering geopolitical considerations which led to that unusual move may have been reasonable, understandable, even “good”, but above all shrewdly realist, not idealist, in character.
I don’t mean this essay as an attack on Google. I think Google is generally run by smart, well-intentioned people operating under incredibly difficult real-world constraints. My purpose is rather to reveal how Google understands and interacts with those constraints and what the sociopolitical effects of those interactions might be. The answer, unfortunately, seems likely to disappoint anyone still hoping for a truly liberating information revolution to emanate magically from from the wizards of Mountain View.
I think it is agreed by all parties that such prodigious suffering is unnecessary and avoidable, and that whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of saving these people would benefit all. I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
It is understood broadly that we live in an age of wise crowds; that we humbly recognize all of us are smarter than any of us. The rise of prediction markets, most especially the proposed Policy Analysis Market for political developments in the Middle East, suggests a course of action oriented around these precepts.
The inefficiencies of centralized planning taint the top-down evacuation orders emanating from government bureaucracies; it should come as no surprise that citizens quite rationally disobey them. Where government fails – that is to say, inevitably and always – we should replace them with markets. So long as we get the incentives right, as social entrepreneurs like to say, we can harness the engine of self-interest for both the individual and collective good: capitalism with a human face.
So how might we make a market in disaster preparedness?
The core, I think we can all agree, would be a tontine. We could distribute credits equally among citizens, redeemable for cash should they survive a given weather event. Such a reward would incentivize wise behavior more than any notice from a centralized weather service.
Of course, the value of the credits should increase as the number of survivors decrease. It is no great feat to merely follow the herd. Instead, those who made better decisions on equivalent information should be rewarded for their efficient use of information. The (remaining) market will then quickly move to incorporate this information and improve everyone’s outcomes in the future.
Some might object that such a system incentivizes living in dangerous areas. But physical safety need not be an impediment to wealth. As a matter of social justice, distant observers should still be able to benefit from others who wade weeping through waste-deep filth as everything they’ve known and loved burns down behind them. Thankfully, advances in the financial engineering have created sophisticated instruments through which such broadly distributed benefits may be achieved.
For example, it would be trivially simple to create derivative products of these tontine contracts. Even those far removed from the affected areas will be able to wager on lives of the victims, who could be organized into different risk tranches depending on, say, their location relative to known floodplains. Investors could rationally incorporate all of this information into their plans and benefit from their wise decisions.
The wonder of markets is that they serve all of society. A Disaster Market would not only potentially enrich some of its victims and speculators, but would also provide practical price signals for those merchants hoping to enter the market. Disaster Markets, in aggregating all known information about risks, would predictively inform emergency response teams where their services were most highly valued. These teams, following the admirable example of Crassus in antiquity, would themselves be private organizations, arriving quickly to the scene and then competing among themselves for the services of the survivors, who themselves would aggressively bargain over the rescue of ruins which were their lives.
Hurricane Sandy has revealed the inadequacies of our current social systems. As a social entrepreneur, I aim only to harness the power of markets to avoid such a perpetual scene of misfortunes. I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country. For I live on high, dry ground, in a well-built house, and am thus stand to gain little compared to those fortunate few with the opportunity to profit from their pain.
This entry was originally posted on the blog of the Center for Civic Media.
(the first few paragraphs are background. old internet hands can skip to the good stuff)
The Occupy Wall Street move has, like the Arab Spring before it, leveraged social media to spread its message. Through tools like Twitter and Facebook – and reddit and imgur and hackernews and countless other sympathetic communities – the members of OWS can spread communicate quickly and laterally, independent of the filtering systems of the dominant, mass-media infrastructure.
We all know this dynamic has collapsed the costs of communications and the need for a communications organization. OWS does not need to rely on media liaisons to penetrate broadsheet journalism and broadcast news. You don’t need videographers when every citizen has a camera and can flood YouTube with police brutality videos. All you need is enough people with enough cameras and the news will find you. You don’t need PR professionals to get you ads in newspapers. You just need enough people posting enough links to Facebook and Twitter sufficient to spread the word through your social networks.
This is, I think, the fundamental insight of Clay Shirky’s fundamentally insightful book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The idea, to paraphrase Shirky, is that in a networked society, you don’t need organizations to organize anymore, because all of the hard, heirarchical work that organizations used to do can be distributed across the network to the individuals themselves. And we’ve seen this insight enacted, time and again, as movements have self-organized, and used the Internet to communicate not only to audiences external to the movement, but indeed within the movement itself.
It is not surprising or new that OWS has made use of this particular dynamic in their communications. In fact, it is now an inevitable characterstic of any given movement that its communications are lateral, and agglomerative, consuming the nodes of the social networks that constitute the digitally mediated publics in which we spend so much of our time.
While it’s been true for some time that movements don’t need organizations in order to communicate, funding a movement is a different, and much more expensive, animal. In fact, funding a movement has required an organization with an administrative hierarchy. Want to open a bank account as a new movement? First you’ve got to find a treasurer you can trust and open the account in his or her name, and then you’re dependent on that individual to control the purse strings. Paypal is also tied to an individual. You can’t open either a bank or Paypal account for an organization, let alone a movement.
How do you find that individual? How do you control them? To whom do they report, and who reports to them? How is the money spent? These are all organizational questions, by which I mean they presume – and require – the existence of an organization to answer them. Movements may be able to communicate laterally, without organizational hierarchy, but when it comes to actually doing things – which is to say paying for them – they’ve hit the wall of organizational necessity.
That’s where WePay comes in.
WePay is a service which mediates between banks and groups. As an group – a book club, intramural team, fraternity, whatever – you can create a WePay account that’s registered to the organization, not to an individual member of that organization. Anybody – from a member of your group to a complete stranger donating to the cause – can deposit money in your group’s WePay account, and authorized members of the group can spend it. This facilitates flexibility: if your treasurer leaves / graduates / dies / loses interest, or for some other reason can no longer serve in their professional capacity, your group isn’t stuck. You just move the access along to the new individual. Put another way, it’s a bank account for your corporate person.
WePay has effectively become the bank for the OWS movement. Supporters of the OWS movement have donated tens of thousands of dollars to more than 200 OWS campaigns. The NYCGA campaign alone has raised over $100,000 through WePay at the time of this writing.
Notice I say “bank for the movement.” There is not, and may never be, an OWS organization. But there is the OWS movement, constituted of countless individuals loosely arranged around a common set of causes, beliefs, and calls to action. For a dispersed movement, the costs (practical and philosophical) of setting up a rigid organization with financial authority would be tremendous. Potentially life-threatening. But with WePay, that isn’t necessary. Instead, anyone interested in joining the movement can create their own campaign, setup a WePay account, and begin collecting and disbursing funds. Anyone interested in contributing can.
WePay has not only democratized the means of fundraising for political movements. It’s disembodied it. It’s completely crushed the conceptual space inhabited by organizational fundraising, doing to it what folksonomies did to taxonomies. Want to raise money for an OWS campaign in Seattle, San Francisco, or Staten Island? Go ahead. Disagree with the way the folks in Zuccotti park are spending their money? Create a new campaign for Battery park. Skeptical that the money is going to the right place or right things? There’s an app for that. OWS on WePay is all part of the same movement. It’s just moved outside the form of a traditional organization.
Do you see why this is a such a radical, fundamental shift for movements? You don’t need to find a treasurer anymore. You don’t need to elect a governing board. You don’t need to impose an administrative hierarchy just in order to get things done. Sure, these things might help achieve certain goals in a mature movement, where the positions and proposals are crystallizing into political action and the legitimacy conferred by a central authority is worth its weight in transactional costs. But for a complex, diffuse startup movement like OWS, the costs of funding it, just like the costs of communicating about it, have collapsed below the organizational level.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest are all services which help movements spread their message and actions. That is their key intervention in the political process. That is the work they do in the world.
Well, WePay has become a service intervention which helps protestors fund their message and actions. It does to administrative costs what social network sites did to communications costs. That’s its “killer app.” We have not seen this before. It is new. It is real. It is powerful. And it is only beginning.
edit: I’ve received some initial feedback to the effect that I’m crediting WePay for what protestors did in the streets. That’s not my intention. WePay didn’t create the protests, and WePay’s existence was not a necessary condition for their continuation.
To condense my argument: A common problem when you’re kickstarting a movement is that the costs of establishing a financial hierarchy exceed the benefits of the money you’re likely to get at the beginning.
WePay’s essential function is to drastically lower the transaction costs of collecting and disbursing money on behalf of groups. It is arbitraging what was previously a systemic inefficiency in raising and spending money. That’s the key difference here and that’s what it’s brought to the OWS protests, in the same way that Facebook made it really, really easy to share links with all of your friends.
That is not a determinative change. The protests would have happened without WePay, and they would have been big without WePay. But it is a big change in the way movements can fund themselves.
On Wednesday, I was happy to attend a conversation with Assistant SecState PJ Crowley at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media. On Saturday, I was saddened to learn that as a result of that conversation – specifically after characterizing the inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention as “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid” – Mr Crowley resigned his office.
The C4 meeting was intended to be an informal conversation between top-flight academics and a leading government official about social media and state policy. Mr Crowley was candid and forthright in his remarks. He provided wonderful insights about his challenges at State. And, when he agreed at the end of the talk that his informal comments could be on record, he did so presumably so that those not fortunate enough to physically attend could still profit from his wisdom and experience.
Mr Crowley’s job
is was to represent the opinions of the Obama administration. And he did not do so accurately in this discussion. Some have argued that this discrepancy justifies his allegedly encouraged resignation.
However, Mr Crowley also stated clearly that these were his personal, not professional, beliefs. Candid, forthright discussions between policymakers and their constituents are a necessary condition for a functioning republic. All law may be politics, but not all policy need be positioning. And if a public official can’t speak honestly in a conversation with leading academics at MIT’s center for civic media, then there is no safe space left for honesty in governance.
Accordingly, I have added my name to an open letter issued by attendees in support of Mr Crowley. Will it accomplish anything? Probably not. But the least I can do to support someone who as candid as Crowley is to be just as forthright on his behalf. Because, under the circumstances, the resignation of PJ Crowley is ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid.