Why Google Gets Away With So Much
It’s time to stop letting ourselves be the ‘abandoned carcass’ of our data
“We shine the light on whatever’s worst
Tryna fix something
But you can’t fix what you can’t see…”
– Beyonce, “Pretty Hurts”
Just say what pops into your head first, no Googling. When you hear Amazon.com, who do you think of?
Jeff Bezos, right?
Let’s try this again. When I say Apple, you think…
Steve Jobs or Tim Cook. Automatic. Maybe you threw in Steve Wozniak. (Look at you!)
Well, duh: Mark Zuckerberg, with Sheryl Sandberg trailing behind.
Now let’s try a slightly harder one: who first comes to mind when I say Google?
It’s possible you said Sergey Brin or Larry Page, but unlikely — neither Google co-founder has ever become a household name like Jobs or Bezos or Zuckerberg.
Maybe you said Eric Schmidt, the closest thing Google had to a public leader for much of the Obama era. Or perhaps you said Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and now its parent company Alphabet.
But it probably took you, at the very least, a half-second longer than it did for Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. That is, if you thought of someone at all.
Why is that? And why does it matter so much?
Google doesn’t have a human face
Almost every major tech giant but Google has, as a matter of course, a CEO who appears frequently on TV or in the pages of newspapers and magazines of their own volition.
For most public-facing tech companies, this would seem to be a no-brainer: you cement and promote the hoodie-clad rebel genius founder myth; you get to reuse and hone the same communications resources you use in investor storytime; and in doing so, you hopefully inoculate yourself from concerns over how you’re using people’s data. After all, your founders and leaders are celebrities, but they’re also human, just like us! And because we can relate to them, we are more likely to ignore the terms and conditions on your website or service.
As humans, we have a prejudice in favor of stories that feature other humans.
So you end up with Jeff Bezos giving Valentine’s Day advice (yes, this is real) and Tim Cook cheekily changing his Twitter handle in response to the President calling him Tim Apple. And let’s not forget all the ways Mark Zuckerberg attempted to “humanize” himself to the general public throughout the 2000s and 2010s, an effort that continues to this day. (And you also see it in some of their would-be challengers — note the way that Alex Zhu of TikTok is taking pains to avoid the appearance of a faceless company, particularly as controversy swirls over its role in aiding Chinese censorship efforts.)
But there’s a problem for these companies that they didn’t foresee: when you live by the anthropomorphization of your product, you also die by the anthropomorphization of your product.
As humans, we have a prejudice in favor of stories that feature other humans. It’s easier for us to think about a singular decision Mark Zuckerberg makes than the long-term, aggregate trends that Facebook, as a global multinational corporation, is likely to engage in or implicitly encourage. So when we’re pissed off by “something Facebook did,” that feeling is more likely to persist when we know where to direct our anger — at Mark Zuckerberg — as opposed to a set of broad societal forces.
“The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses,” said famed activist and folkie Utah Phillips. Part of what makes that idea so powerful is that the companies most complicit in environmental destruction are precisely those who are least likely to give the public a human target at which to direct their anger. How many members of the general public knew Rex Tillerson’s name when he ran Exxon, before he became Trump’s Secretary of State?
Before the miasma of scandals around the major tech companies took hold, it seemed odd to think anyone would be mad at the website where you posted updates for your friends, or the website where you ordered books. But we’re all mad now. And having a target — a household name that can be brought before Congress and mocked — has sustained that anger.
Google has made a fundamentally different bet than Amazon, Apple, or Facebook when it comes to surviving public outcry and controversy.
And it hasn’t just paid off once. It’s helping them get away with a series of transgressions.
When you have no human face, you have no human flaws
The most memorable tech scandals of recent years are largely told as human interest stories: the rise and fall of would-be messianic figures, developers who betrayed some kind of founding ethos of Silicon Valley.
Google, by comparison, has slipped by quietly. Consider that every major non-Google tech scandal of the last few years actually has an analog within Google itself:
All the worker discontent at Amazon? Google’s got that in spades — you just hear about it less without the news hook of a high-profile CEO.
Foreign governments manipulating Facebook? Google is actively working with the Chinese government to quash access to worker and political movements. (Something, it’s worth noting, that Facebook has refused to do.)
Apple’s various Siri privacy scandals? Google gives “smart spies” access to your most private conversations.
Virtually every once-media-darling tech CEO has been “tainted” in some way. Think Zuckerberg’s archetypal hero-to-villain arc or Jeff Bezos no longer even bothering to play the “plucky underdog innovator” PR card, and now openly trying to buy elections. Even the once irreproachable Steve Jobs was besmirched by the Foxconn scandal — encouraging a new willingness within the national discourse to consider his legacy in more complicated hues.
Google has no such problem. Google’s most senior leaders have managed to remain relatively unsullied for the general public, even in the midst of the ongoing, very real and very disturbing story of sexual misconduct by Alphabet’s Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond — which itself points to an earlier, equally (if not more) pernicious cover-up by Google of Andy Rubin’s horrific behavior. The culture at Google might get dinged here and there, but those who drive it tend to emerge unscathed and, notably, to stay in the background.
There’s a very good reason for that.
Google chooses to let what the public perceives as its product speak for itself.
I Google you. You don’t Apple me.
“Verbing Weirds Language.”
– Calvin And Hobbes
Googling is a verb. You likely didn’t even blink when I used it in the first sentence of this article.
It’s easy to forget how weird that is. Talk of “Facebooking” someone would sound kind of odd. We certainly don’t Amazon, and if someone were to talk about Appling, you might guess they went to a fruit orchard or something.
Yes, brands do replace generic terms all the time: Kleenex and Chapstick, for example. But Google isn’t a noun, it’s a verb — a verb to express the successful fulfillment of an incredibly core and unique human need: searching for information.
Think of this another way. Google, at first glance, is kind of like running water — once it’s invented, you don’t know how you ever lived without it. What’s more, you come to expect it to always work — like magic.
But when the water is turned off by the landlord for a few hours, you get annoyed and wait it out. If Google search is out for a few hours, on the other hand, you feel discombobulated — the way you interact with the world is thrown into question. When anthropologist Amber Case declares we’re all cyborgs now, I suspect that her diagnosis includes how immediately Googling something I notice on the street is now as much a part of my cognitive process as idly trying to think back to where I might’ve seen that before.
Every time we reflexively Google something without much conscious thought, out of muscle memory, we reinforce the sense that using Google is like using some kind of basic human capacity. Not only that, but a positive human behavior: after all, intellectual curiosity is typically cited as a virtue.
If googling were merely treated by society as a utility service, it’d be difficult enough for consumers to hold Google accountable. When a monopoly owns a utility, it’s historically very hard to change its behavior. But the fact that it’s half utility service and half pseudo-biological act makes it even harder.
If you saw the person in charge of your state’s water supply appearing on talk shows, trying to show everyone how human they were — in other words, pulling a Zuckerberg — it wouldn’t be reassuring. It’d be deeply concerning: why is the person in charge of the water supply trying to tell us how okay everything is? Is there something wrong I don’t know about? Utilities are supposed to feel automatic. Taken for granted.
Now imagine the person appearing on television is in charge of your memory and your cognitive mapping, and you can see why both they (and we) would rather mystify the source of this question answerer. We want to be in charge of our own thoughts, and giving Google a face amounts to handing some part of that intensely personal and private power to another person.
We have reason to not want to see Google executives held accountable because we don’t want to see Google executives, period.
Indulge me in a small thought experiment
Imagine you’re about to have a huge chunk of your online activity leaked, but you get to protect one thing from ever going public: a) everything you’ve ever Googled; b) everything you’ve ever bought on Amazon; or c) everything you’ve ever posted on Facebook.
I suspect that the vast majority would choose Google. Some embarrassing stuff gets posted on Facebook, but much of it is composed to be public-facing; we might have some sensitive purchases on Amazon, but much of what we purchase is meant to be seen by others. But the vast majority of us Google with complete assumed privacy, never pausing to think, “Might someone else find this search offensive, or unethical, or disqualifying?” No wonder we would rather act like the whole thing is a magic box, a private internal sphere much like our own minds, with no keeper standing outside of ourselves.
Google’s product isn’t Google
Google’s product is not the Googling. And it’s also not Gmail, or Google Calendar, or Google Drive, or Google Stadia or the seemingly endless other products they’ve tried and/or killed. (Pour one out for Google+, everyone.)
“You are not the product. You are the abandoned carcass.”
And no — you are not Google’s product, either. It’s worse: you are Google’s source of raw material. You are the natural resource being mined by Big Tech for profit.
As Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard and coiner of the term “surveillance capitalism” puts it: “You are not the product. You are the abandoned carcass.”
Data is arguably the most valuable asset on the planet, and Google gathers it by drilling into our searches, our homes, our schools, our kitchens, our gardens, our keys, our cars, our wallets, and our bodies. And then Google sells it to whoever will pay the most to change minds and dictate behavior.
In the early days of Google, the idea of accessing peoples’ private Google searches and selling them to the highest bidder was considered unthinkable.
Then, facing an economic crunch after the dot-com bubble, Google had a sudden epiphany: they could use search data for targeting purposes. And from that point forward, they never stopped creating opportunities to surveil their users.
Yes, all the tech giants now do this. But Zuboff, whose groundbreaking history of surveillance capitalism is a must-read, fingers Google as the original inventor of surveillance capitalism:
Google’s new methods were prized for their ability to find data that users had opted to keep private and to infer extensive personal information that users did not provide. These operations were designed to bypass user awareness…In other words, from the very start, Google’s breakthrough depended upon a one-way mirror: surveillance.
A working one-way mirror looks like a regular old mirror. You just see yourself. But there are people on the other side of the mirror that is your Google search history. They see you.
It’s time to take a look back at them.
Let’s put a face to the name
As a friend who worked with Google mentioned to me, kudos for successes at Google generally don’t go to individual workers, but to Google, the entity. You don’t hear that “people are doing great things at Google” — you hear that Google is doing great things. Google is dehumanized all the way down.
Google has perhaps been the most adept of the tech giants at quieting stories of worker unrest; even an uncharacteristic blow-up like the James Damore memo would have fueled substantially more news coverage at another tech giant.
The workers at Google are getting better at harnessing that unrest — and Google has for once shown themselves unsure how to keep the story from breaking out.
There are men and women behind the curtain at Google. And much like the great and powerful Oz, it’s time for them to reveal themselves and to explain to the public where the buck actually stops.
Let’s give Google a little skin in the only game that should matter in Silicon Valley: making social tech accountable to regular people again.