Sunday Times, 03 June 2013
The climax of Eric Schmidt’s UK schmoozathon was a party at Loulou’s, an “ultra exclusive’ London night spot. Princess Beatrice was there as were James Middleton, Lily Cole, the Duchess of York, Holly Branson and… well, the list goes on.
This was the sort of B+ list that normally only turns out for the launch of an exciting new brand of vodka. But this was for the executive chairman of Google and his book – co-written with Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas – The New Digital Age.
For Schmidt, this British jaunt had been a fantastic success. You may think that the news that Google pays almost no tax in Britain had soured the atmosphere. Far from it. Schmidt sailed through those criticisms with talk of ‘fiduciary responsibility’ and expressed himself ‘perplexed’ at all the fuss. At my one-on-one discussion with him at an Intelligence Squared event, the audience actually applauded to the tax question.
As usual, Schmidt strolled into Downing Street as if he owned the place and, to me, spoke warmly of his friendship with David Cameron and George Osborne. His American liberal friends, he said, did not understand why he supported conservatives; he had to explain the British conservatives were nothing like American ones.
Why were we making such a fuss of this man? Google is only one company and, even more boringly, it is only a one-product advertising company. Virtually all its profits arise from its monopoly position in online and mobile advertising. Everything else they do is designed to create, in the words of analyst Francesco Jeronimo, “different channels for their clients to promote products”.
As usual, Schmidt strolled into Downing Street as if he owned the place and, to me, spoke warmly of his friendship with David Cameron and George Osborne
Their dominance of the smartphone market, for example, is not itself a money-maker – they give away their open source Android software in order to increase the reach of their information gathering system. They now wish to break into the African and Asian markets with Android by reducing the cost of smartphones. They are doing this solely to exert their monopoly position in these, in internet terms, virgin territories.
This explains the feverish book promotion efforts as well as strange stunts like Schmidt’s visit to North Korea in January. He stood down as chief executive of the company in 2011 specifically to “focus on external business partnerships and government outreach, including fighting regulators’ concerns about Google’s growing power”. His job, in short, is public relations and his brief is to spread the word that if you want to talk internet you have to talk Google
This is a reasonable aspiration for an advertising company, but should we accept it? Certainly not, not least because there are now troubling signs that Google is going gaga.
Schmidt was replaced as CEO by one of the company’s co-founders, Larry Page. Page and the other founder Sergey Brin had been regarded as a little immature to run Google’s massive expansion but, in 2011, Schmidt said it was time for ‘the training wheels to come off’ and the hitherto shy Page was thrust into the front line. This rather backfired even as Schmidt was schmoozing.
Talking casually to journalists, Page had said, “Law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old. Like, it’s before the internet”. He also suggested “we should set aside some small part of the world” which would be free of regulation so that the Googlers could get on with some hardcore innovation.
I put these words to Schmidt at our one-on-one and he didn’t believe they had been said. I, of course, googled and found them. He then questioned the sources. Plainly such stuff undermined his PR position.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Page’s words seemed to echo those of Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who is backing the Seasteading Institute in its attempt to build floating cities in international waters where the cyber-elites can find fulfilment free of regulation with, apparently, few restrictions on weapons. Thiel described the scheme as an ‘open frontier for experimenting with new ideas for government’.
Google certainly has trouble with pesky regulators in almost every territory in which it operates, but this is a crazy hook on which to hang its brand. The fantasy of a soi-disant intelligentsia deciding it is too good to be contained by mere government is as old as it is idiotic. The Simpsons even had a whole episode – They Saved Lisa’s Brain with guest star Stephen Hawking – which shrewdly pointed out the shortcomings of mere IQ as a guide to government.
Page was displaying, as Schmidt often does, a sinister impatience with government, which means, in a liberal democracy, with tried and trusted ways of doing things. Politicians, suicidally, are easily seduced by this – Cameron and Osborne are just two examples. In the midst of a US inquiry into Apple’s tax position, Senator Rand Paul tweeted, “Apple has done more to enrich people’s lives than politicians will ever do.” To believe that is to hand over our fate to the big companies and to abuse the very idea of democracy.
The fantasy of a soi-disant intelligentsia deciding it is too good to be contained by mere government is as old as it is idiotic
Among some members of the Silicon Valley elites, this is all backed up by an adoration of the excremental novelist and infantile philosopher Ayn Rand. She was a virulent despiser of the state, who once had Alan Greenspan under her influence. Astonishingly, she has recently made a comeback and many technocats ascribe their success to following her quasi-fascist, anti-democratic principles.
Similar dubious ambitions often emerge when Schmidt takes on the debate about Google’s ability to invade our privacy.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” he said in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Consider the arrogant complacency of that remark – we, Google, have the right to dictate moral terms to the entire population. (It reminded me of the Monty Python Blackmail sketch in which a TV game show threatens to show compromising films of its viewers unless they pay up.) When I pointed out to Schmidt that privacy was a fundamental component of freedom, he did not respond. He could not because, if Google relinquishes its power to invade privacy and, therefore, restrict our freedom, then it will be out of business.
He also did not answer when I asked him a question the audience may not have heard. He had been asked about the appointment of one Ray Kurzweil. I seemed to have missed this announcement and I, impolitely, gasped.
“Do you believe,” I asked Schmidt, ‘in the Singularity?’
He brushed that aside saying that would take a much longer discussion.
To explain. The Singularity is to Silicon Valley what the Rapture is to the Bible Belt. Both are expected to happen in the near future. The Rapture will be the moment the saved are snatched from earth and everybody else is left to endure the years of tribulation. The Singularity will be a moment in the next few decades when all our technologies converge to produce a super-intelligent, conscious machine which will more or less take over. This is as improbable as it is undesirable. Improbable because we do not know what consciousness is and no machine has yet displayed any sign of possessing it; undesirable because it would mean the enslavement or extinction of our species. Yet it is a Silicon Valley orthodozy and Kurzweil is its high priest.
He has a genius for self-promotion. I get sent his enormously fat books – on artificial intelligence, on diets, on living forever, on the Singularity and, most recently, he has published How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. After reading a few pages, I declined to review this last on the grounds that it was too silly. I slightly regret that because, soon afterwards, the philosopher Colin McGinn demonstrated how much fun you could have with Kurzweil in the New York Review of Books. With deadly Olympian charm, he annihilated Kurzweil’s “secret of human thought”, pointing out that it had been tried and dismissed in the seventies. The “claim,” he wrote, “seems obviously false.”
The Singularity will be a moment in the next few decades when all our technologies converge to produce a super-intelligent, conscious machine which will more or less take over
Yet Google have hired Kurzweil to work on their Google Brain project based on a system called Deep Learning which was inspired by the British computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton. The idea is to produce intelligent machines and, presumably, an intelligent conscious machine. Unfortunately none of the approaches seem to address consciousness as such, but rather to hope that if you fling enough computing power at something it will one day start thinking for itself. To remind you: it took our planet 4 billion years to achieve human consciousness.
The Singularity, Ayn Rand, the elitism, the moral pretensions and the dreams of island states are all sending the same message – that Silicon Valley is a small, highly intelligent, obsessive, hubristic and deluded community. Its values are not ours. We should, of course, embrace its ingenuity and the gadgets it showers upon us, but we should be wary of the ‘terms and conditions’ attached. These include not just the inane legalisms that come with the software, but also the ideology, the rhetoric, the world-dominating fantasies and, of course, the tax avoidance.
Google is just another company with just another bottom line. We should take note of it but we should not demean ourselves by ushering it into our centres of democratic power and we should certainly not succumb to its delusions. We should merely, if the occasion arises, scrounge an invite to Loulou’s and have a good laugh.