Techno-narcissism: delusions about social media


Looking at media coverage of Edward Snowden’s allegations, what is surprising is not their content, but that we are shocked by the close links between Silicon Valley companies and state intelligence agencies.  Our dismay suggests that we have credulously accepted the fairy-tale reporting of firms like Facebook and Google as ‘tech’ or ‘social media’ outfits rather than seeing them for what they really are: intelligence gathering, manipulation and sales corporations.

Using Google as our example here, let’s have a closer look at why we have deluded ourselves about what to expect from it.

Google is no more a technology company than auto manufacturers, pharmaceutical corporations, or food conglomerates.  The latter all use and develop technology too, but we name them according to their products and services, not the tools they use to develop and sell them.

In a disciplined process of analysis we might question other assumptions too.  The word ‘users’, for example, is far too neutral about the relationship between the corporation and us.  We are actually more akin to patrons who frequent a ‘market’ where we purchase third party goods and services either directly or indirectly through the influence of advertising.  Goodies like email, office software, and online chatting facilities are not really products so much as the enticement to turn up.[1]

Also, the term ‘social media’ is immediately apparent as being possessed of a weasel word, meaning that one of the words here is destroying the meaning of the other.  In this case there is nothing actually ‘social’ about the online media used to collect and aggregate information, but more on that later.  The important point is that Google is in the business of collecting information, massaging it into a product, and selling it.  It is a commercial intelligence corporation, not any kind of social platform, and it is for this reason alone that we should expect very close ties to state intelligence agencies.  In fact, we should expect much closer links and much more extra-legal activity than anything Snowden had to say.

If this all sounds like a dramatic overstatement, that may be because we all rely heavily on our news media to shape our thinking about everything.  But in that reliance we have become uncritical about the distinct subjectivity adopted in the selection of ‘news’ to report, and the way it is presented to us.  This point has been made at great length elsewhere by people like Marshall McLuhan, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, and recently also by more conservative writers like Ron Unz and Conor Friedersdorf.[2]  The point is, we know our news media sometimes misrepresents what it publishes, or omits news altogether.  We know many business, civic and political leaders lie and mislead us, and yet we don’t question uncritical reporting of their words by the new media.  Why are we so surprised, then, that we are lied to, cheated, and taken for fools?  Perhaps because we have fallen out of practicing a bit of critical analysis ourselves?

Assuming that not everyone is familiar with the notion of critical analysis, this is an analytical technique of examining a circumstance, message or artefact with a disciplined approach to uncovering or explaining significant features.  The word critical does not always imply a negative criticism, just a reasoned, informed, and adroit judgement about the analysis.  It is the opposite to assertion based on ignorance or vested interest.

Techno-narcissism as religion

In that light, one of the least enlightening perspectives on Google to accept is the one proposed by Silicon Valley executives and employees, but also all those whose livelihoods are dependent on them.  This perspective is infused with a stifling combination of narcissism and ignorance.

The narcissism has two vectors: a kind of self-obsessed navel gazing that places the subject at the centre of an ahistorical universe in which only the now and its rhetorics have any reality; and the jargon-laden echo chambers of mountebanks, charlatans, and ambitious self-promoters, repeating nonsensical hymns to technology and void concepts like ‘social graphs’, ‘social capital’, or how everything has changed for awesomeness, even though it hasn’t.

The ignorance referred to above is probably most elegantly and diplomatically explained by George Packer in his New Yorker essay, ‘Change the World’, in which he quoted an anonymous Silicon Valley identity commenting on Silicon Valley identities altogether:

“They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems.  It isn’t cynicism – it’s arrogance and ignorance.”

Further on in the piece, Packer talks to a heavyweight:

Andreessen said: “It’s very possible for somebody to show up here – a twenty-four-year-old engineer who’s completely state of the art in building companies and products – and have no exposure at all to politics, social issues, history.”[3]

In other words, there’s a technocratic mentality of embracing a stunning degree of ignorance while asserting with missionary zeal the idea that technical nous somehow makes of fundamentally flawed and socially corrosive ideas a brave new world for everyone.

George Packer.
George Packer: ‘… asking questions about the lack of racial and gender diversity in tech companies leaves people in Silicon Valley intensely uncomfortable. For example, only eight per cent of venture-backed tech start-ups are owned by women, and, in a region where Hispanics make up nearly a quarter of the working-age population, they constitute less than five per cent of employees in large tech companies; the representation of both Hispanics and blacks is actually declining …’

Techno-narcissism is a new religion, relying on not knowing anything about human history as the foundation for a blind faith in what Evegeny Morozov has called ‘solutionism’,[4] which is really no more than a crypto-fascist, reductionist determinism whereby everything is squeezed into algorithmic parameters, which are then also touted as the answer to any questions left over.  All human striving is stripped of anything that doesn’t fit this mechanistic conception, and suggestions are made and taken seriously that human ends should fit into the solutionist products offered by ‘engineers’, who are presented to us as the high priests of the new religion.  Ergo we have ridiculous concepts like social graphs and gadget culture seeking to dismiss class conflict and economic struggle as non-existent, with corporate exploitation becoming ‘awesomeness’ and a continuing history of concentrated wealth, militarism, discrimination, all being banished by the propaganda that nothing will ever be the same again.  Except, of course, that nothing has fundamentally changed since the 1980s, and it isn’t really any more awesome than it was then.

Unfortunately even the emerging mass media critiques of this techno-narcissism appear to be infected by premisses that are uncritical of the technology-centric propaganda peddled by the corporations.  The propaganda is breathlessly naïve and sincere in some cases, but it is nevertheless composed of paper-thin justifications for pretty traditional extractive economic exploitation.

Take, for example, Jaron Lanier, whose Silicon Valley celebrity status and cultivated nouveau hippy chique ‘credibility’ might endear him to the faithful, but whose ignorance or silence about political economy and history undermines his more valid points, such as those about an online lynch-mob mentality arising from the combination of anonymity and group-think, and of the bare-faced lie behind the proposition that any activity involving human labour can be regarded as free.

A much more rational and grounded critic is Evgeny Morozov, who carefully deconstructs the pompous, misleading rhetorics of technological utopianism, but even he stops short of a pluralist critique of combining historical political, social, and economic dimensions.

Not that rational critiques are likely to penetrate too far.  The internet acronym for ‘too long; didn’t read’ (TLDR) has become not just a mantra for the indolent and idiotic, but a pseudo-dictum.  Writing is being devalued as part of the techno-narcissists through their demands that it be permanent synopsis, and devoid of style, elegance, cadence, literary sophistication, or nuance.  Instead it has been recast by the semi-literate technocrats as no more than the necessary creation of words to constitute an online content whose sole function is to be consumed as disposable information rather than as a vehicle for anything meaningful like literature, critique, rhetoric, polemic, satire, Socratic dialogue.  The technocrats aren’t educated enough to understand these forms of prose, so they condemn them as too long, meaning too complex for their own attenuated analytical skills, and ‘didn’t read’ because it might require effort and concentration.

There is no conception here of joy in writing and reading, the explication of concepts too complex to describe in tweet-length summaries, and the value of grammar, diction, and spelling.  All of this reductionism appears to be an aspirational justification for ignorance and devaluation of anything that cannot be understood in attention deficit time-spans.

In these contexts one must wonder how any worthwhile critiques of intelligence corporations and their products can ever actually arise within the constraints of the new religion.  The answer is: they can’t!  What’s required is, of course, an educated and disciplined approach.

Critical theory

To illustrate one possible method, let’s build a framework of reference.  A critical perspective or paradigm within which to examine digital technology issues.

Here we will begin with some exposition of the ideas put forward by Herbert Marcuse.  Why?  Because he combined political, economic, and social critique as a single approach rather than separate and discrete strands, and because he talked about technology as an artefact as well as a driver of political economy.

Uncritical thinking derives its beliefs, norms, and values from existing thought and social practices, while critical thought seeks alternative modes of thought and behaviour from which it creates a standpoint of critique. Such a critical standpoint requires developing what Marcuse calls “negative thinking,” which “negates” existing forms of thought and reality from the perspective of higher possibilities. This practice presupposes the ability to make a distinction between existence and essence, fact and potentiality, and appearance and reality.[5]

In other words, let’s ditch group think and orthodoxy, or whatever passes as expert opinion, and let’s admit the possibility that things do not have to be as they are, and can be changed if we so desire.

… Marcuse sketches the historical decline of individualism from the time of the bourgeois revolutions to the rise of modern technological society.  Individual rationality, he claims, was won in the struggle against regnant superstitions, irrationality, and domination, and posed the individual in a critical stance against society.  Critical reason was thus a creative principle which was the source of both the individual’s liberation and society’s advancement.  The development of modern industry and technological rationality, however, undermined the basis of individual rationality.  As capitalism and technology developed, advanced industrial society demanded increasing accommodation to the economic and social apparatus and submission to increasing domination and administration. Hence, a “mechanics of conformity” spread throughout the society. The efficiency and power of administration overwhelmed the individual, who gradually lost the earlier traits of critical rationality (i.e., autonomy, dissent, the power of negation), thus producing a “one-dimensional society” and “one-dimensional man.”[6]

Marcuse was quite insightful in predicting how individuality is crushed rather than nurtured by the technocracy of administering the superstructure of advanced technological capitalism; that superstructure might be thought of as private companies, the apparatus of state, institutions like universities, the ‘press’, and political parties.  It certainly includes companies like Google.  It is the expected conformity to bureaucratic structures, organisational rules, and echo chamber thinking that kills off individuality, creativity, and liberty.

… Marcuse claims that: “The defeat of Fascism and National Socialism has not arrested the trend towards totalitarianism. Freedom is on the retreat—in the realm of thought as well as in that of society.”  In Marcuse’s view, the powers of reason and freedom are declining in “late industrial society”: “With the increasing concentration and effectiveness of economic, political, and cultural controls, the opposition in all these fields has been pacified, co-ordinated, or liquidated.” Indeed, reason has become an instrument of domination: “It helps to organize, administer, and anticipate the powers that be, and to liquidate the ‘power of Negativity.’ Reason has identified itself with the reality: what is actual is reasonable, although what is reasonable has not yet become actuality.”[7]

This is precisely the rationale of the technocrats dominating intelligence corporations: that humanity and humanism should be displaced by the logic of developing digital technology markets to which people should mould themselves instead of questioning the actual utility and benefits of consumer technology to independently human ends.  And that’s precisely what we see on Google Plus in the endless free advertising for consumer platforms masquerading as comments on, or reviews of, smart phones, tablets, and apps; in endless ‘social media’ strategy babble by ‘thought leaders’; in the striving for cachet and prestige in the faux ‘social’ sphere of online echo chambers; and in the worship of digital technology superstars as if they were Soviet era Stalinist leaders, or religious prophets; names like Jobs, Andreessen, and Page come to mind immediately.

The lessons of history

How did we ever end up in the grip of techno-narcissism?  Ignorance of history is one answer.  What history?  Let’s start with The European Reformation, which ended in so much bloodshed and internecine destruction that Thomas Hobbes was able to compose, and be remembered for The Leviathan, in which he argued that all religious and private factions had to surrender to the sovereign state the ‘freedom’ to kill and torture each other in return for some minimum protections of life, limb, and property.

Herbert Marcuse.
Herbert Marcuse: ‘In this behavioral universe, words and concepts tend to coincide, or rather the concept tends to be absorbed by the word. The former has no other content than that designated by the word in the publicized and standardized usage, and the word is expected to have no other response than the publicized and standardized behavior …’.

From Hobbes let’s move to John Locke, who asserted the liberal democratic principle that the state needs the consent of the governed to be governed.  John Stuart Mill added the restraint that the will of the mass is tyranny if imposed on an unwilling minority.

In a separate strand of history let’s consider that Adam Smith was not an advocate of completely unfettered capitalism, but assumed a degree of ethics, as expounded in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which seems to be entirely absent from contemporary discussions of economic policy and corporate conduct.

Let’s consider that Karl Marx established the theory about exploitation of labour through an appropriation of its surplus value as the basis of capitalist profit.  But let’s also consider John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August von Hayek as bookends of conventional economic theory in the West until the 1980s, arguing state intervention in times of private sector failures, and state restraint from intervention in times of private sector successes.

Let’s move back a little, in tangent, to Gladstone and Disraeli in England and Bismarck in Germany, who saw the benefits to the state and society of an educated population, of an agnostic secularism in state institutions to prevent precisely the religious determinism now re-introduced by technocrats, and of a basic social welfare infrastructure, if only to prevent social unrest and revolution.

It’s a skimpy list of names and ideas, but short of presenting a fully-fledged thesis it will suffice to bring us to the mass consumerism of the 1950s through to the 1970s, with an unsustainable economic dithering between Keynes and Hayek leading to the sharp rupture in Western political economy that began with Reaganomics and Thatcherism, which were all about reverting to a 19th century laissez faire model writ large.

Silicon Valley corporations

It is this form of political economy, dominant particularly in the UK and USA, but accepted as orthodoxy almost universally by now, that led in the US to a particular kind of capital accumulation, based on highly risky stock market speculation, leading to massively inflated bubbles of artificial value, which underwrote the Silicon Valley boom.  In other words, without the precise history and economic development of the West, creating the right kinds of mass consumer societies and the right kinds of high-risk venture capital, with the right kind of unregulated commercial space, Silicon Valley might not have developed at all, or developed elsewhere.

As a product of robber baron capitalism, Silicon Valley corporations themselves are not fundamentally different to their more traditional counterparts in, say, oil, automobiles, or pharmaceuticals.

They are amoral, anti-social, and selectively lawless.  Amoral here means a lack of ethics rather than obedience of laws, which is really only a selectivity about which laws to obey and where, via the legerdemain of trans-national corporate structures, and a willingness to break laws in order to manipulate markets if the penalties are smaller than the profits.  They are anti-social to the extent that they withhold significant capital reserves from job-creating re-investment to boost their share prices, and they cheat on taxes as a profit maximisation strategy, all of which robs the societies from which they profit of tax revenue, and destroys jobs, thus undermining social stability.

It is here, too, that we can locate the lies inherent in the term ‘social media’.  The social is a direct engagement of people in close proximity to each other to resolve common problems or to cooperate for mutually beneficial outcomes.  The social dimension contains all there is to know about human interaction, including class structures, and differentiation according to gender, opinions, race, economics, and community membership.  None of this is contained in the so-called social media, which are only market places for commercial activity, bringing together disparate people who may not share any common social ties or outlooks in an entirely contrived environment.  The physical manifestation of social media is no more than an online forum, directed and restricted by its design and functionality.  Unlike real social engagements, none of the patrons of the forum have any power to change its structure or purpose.

Recognising these constraints is not synonymous with a demand they be altered.  That recognition should, however, clarify in our minds that intelligence corporations are commercial enterprises, governed by the same imperatives as other corporations.  That includes features not often highlighted in mass media.  Contrary to free market rhetoric about private sector activity being more efficient if unregulated, late capitalist corporations all work to distort markets to their own benefit, meaning they only eschew regulation that doesn’t benefit them.  Nor is it clear what is so ‘efficient’ about profit maximisation driven by unsustainable extractive principles.  Non-profit organisations can be at least as efficient in pursuing outcomes not measured by direct profitability: schools for turning out educated kids, public transport for running on time, hospitals for reducing the social cost of sickness.

Also contrary to free market rhetoric, most corporations are responsible to no one at all, because their boards are made up largely of institutional shareholders, meaning a very small and highly concentrated composition of boards staffed by the same people – corporate executives looking after corporate interests, which are not always about shareholder benefit or dividends.  It might be argued that the collapse of 2007 wouldn’t have happened if there had been critical intervention by real people on boards rather than corporate proxies.

Social media economics

Despite everything stated here being more or less common knowledge, the economics of social media corporations still flummox a great many people, who assume that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and some others, give ‘stuff’ away for nothing, like altruistic benefactors.

Let’s have a look at why that is simply not true.  We’ll use Google Plus as an example, but the model can be adapted to any of the others as well.

Google purports to offer a free social media platform (and other services like Gmail and Google Docs) in return for the right to use personal information and usage trends as a product with which to attract advertising.

Google in fact needs people to use its artefacts and to populate it with their content in order for this to work at all.  So, there is what Maurizio Lazzarato called immaterial labour,[8] which is essentially no different from Marx’s description of the appropriation of surplus value of labour by capitalists to derive profit, except this immaterial labour is entirely unpaid, and has no tangible commercial product as its end point: no one gets paid to post cat gifs, and no one pays to look at them.

Eric Schmidt.
Eric Schmidt” ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’

Well, not quite.  We all pay to post on and look at social networks via the costs of our internet infrastructures.

There are also other larger but more indirect costs to us all.  First, for every advertising dollar spent, the price of products and services thus advertised has to rise to make up for the expenditure.  When we buy from Google advertisers, we pay for Google profits, and therefore Google’s ‘free’ products.

Further diffused in the economy is the inflationary pressure of price rises, which are partly offset by reduced advertising costs elsewhere, but not completely.  Advertising spend has risen overall, even if the landscape of beneficiaries has changed somewhat.  Inflation affects everyone, whether they use Google’s products or not.

In short, we all pay for Google, which is quite obviously far from free.  A corollary is that arguments about ownership of the ‘free’ services actually being vested in their patrons become respectable, with the proviso that this does not confer a controlling power in any traditional sense of ownership.  It is, however, quite clear that the value of the services would plummet to zero if patronage were withheld.

That is the lesson of the Snowden media circus: public opinion can and does matter to social media corporations if the risk of ignoring it threatens patronage.  It is perhaps the only lever to demand ethical behaviour from social media corporations, much as boycotting conventional companies and products has worked in the past.

Technocrat ethics

Could it be that companies like Google are confused about public reaction to their unethical behaviours because they are disproportionately populated by technocrats whose ethical sensibilities are stunted or entirely absent?

If so, how is it that these technocrats could be so divorced from wider public perceptions about morality and demands for ethical corporate behaviour?

Running roughly in tandem with the 1980s rise of plutocratic political economy was a vandalism of the public education systems in the Western world to monetise its products (students) and services (diplomas, degrees).

This meant that education with no direct return on investment visible to the ideologues who made such policies was eclipsed in favour of merely technical training for the professions: engineers, architects, lawyers, doctors, scientists (of commercial appeal), and, latterly, nerds trained as IT ‘engineers’.

However, by sidelining the humanities in education, a new generation of professionals emerged as largely ignorant about anything outside their specialisations, like history, philosophy, the arts, and particularly literature, which is important not only in explaining philosophical concepts to neophytes, but in fostering literacy and an appreciation of how to communicate in a less rudimentary fashion than the semi-literate ‘business’ English of dot points, ungrammatical formulations, an absence of recognisable spelling, and a superabundance of meaningless technical and business jargon.

These absences in education make it difficult for professionals to ever come to an understanding of ethics, moral principle, and why these are important to society and individuals.  As a consequence we now have two generations[9] of graduates who are functionally amoral and convinced that ethics just means obeying laws or paying lip service to Sunday School sermons.

A recent congressional report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Humanities and Social Sciences suggests that not only do employers prize liberal arts education more highly than was supposed by policymakers since the 1980s, but the knowledge and skills inculcated in such curricula are being missed at more senior levels than just graduate positions.[10]

The absence of a more broadly-based education may partly explain why corporations behave amorally.  The people running them have no conception of what it would mean to behave differently, and that doing so is an option limited only by inaction.

A matter of perspective

It is in this context that Silicon Valley trans-nationals might be justifiably considered as ethically suspect, and their complicity in police state surveillance shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

From Marcuse’s point of view, both the state and the trans-nationals are really in the same business: perpetuating the currently dominant political economy.  If the articulation of police state apparatuses is seen as a logical or necessary administrative form of economic, political, or social control, then the state and corporations have a joint interest in facilitating such mechanisms.

This context sheds light on Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s statement: ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’[11]  Not only might Schmidt lack the education to understand how crypto-fascist he sounded, but it actually makes perfect sense in terms of Google’s business model, in which there is no room for political or economic dissent, and in which there is a great deal of naïveté about what kinds of opinion and behaviour are acceptable, and from whom.  It did not escape George Packer that Silicon Valley businesses are the preserves of mostly white men from already affluent backgrounds; women and racial minorities are simply not front of mind, and neither are the economic, political, and social discrimination they face as a matter of routine.  We might consider this a Silicon Valley exceptionalism, on top of American exceptionalism more generally.

It is clear that Schmidt seems woefully unaware of the potential for his business to deliver to others information that can and probably is already being used to entrench that discrimination.  That’s just the US we are considering now.  For every opinion spread through the Google infrastructure world-wide, not only can it find support, but it must also expect to encounter secret and not so secret police intent on eradicating the opinion and its source.

The largely apathetic indifference by Western populations to revelations of the extent to which this symbiotic relationship between social media and distinctly sinister police state activities has progressed is a good indication that the suppression of dissent described by Marcuse has worked entirely as predicted.  We don’t even recognise it as sinister anymore, particularly not if it has the veneer of legality.

Without any need to adopt alternate perspectives on this symbiosis, it is nevertheless useful to keep in mind that many millions, if not billions of non-Western people might see social media corporations in contexts very different to the ones we are presented with in our own mass media.  Consider, for example, the following excerpt from an opinion published in the Russian Pravda by the China Daily’s Eric Sommer:

Google is, in fact, is a key participant in U.S. military and CIA intelligence operations involving torture; subversion of foreign governments; illegal wars of aggression; and military occupations of  countries which have never attacked the U.S. and which have cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

To begin with, as reported previously in the Washington Post and elsewhere, Google  is the supplier of the customized core search technology for Intellipedia, a highly-secured online system where 37,000 U.S. spies and related personnel share information and collaborate on their devious errands.

Agencies such as the so-called ‘National Security Agency’, or NSA, which is implicated in the current ‘spying on Americans’ scandal, have also purchased servers using Google-supplied search technology which processes information gathered by U.S. spies operating all over the planet.

In addition, Google is linked to the U.S. spy and military systems through its Google Earth software venture.  The technology behind this software was originally developed by Keyhole Inc., a company funded by Q-Tel, a venture capital firm which is in turn openly funded and operated on behalf of the CIA.

Google acquired Keyhole Inc. in 2004.  The same base technology is currently employed by U.S. military and intelligence systems in their quest, in their own words, for “full-spectrum dominance” of the planet.

Moreover, Googles’ connection with the CIA and its venture capital firm extends to sharing at least one key member of personnel.  In 2004, the Director of Technology Assessment at In-Q-Tel, Rob Painter, moved from his old job directly serving the CIA to become ‘Senior Federal Manager’ at Google.

As Robert Steele, a former CIA case officer has put it:  Google is “in bed with” the CIA.[12]

What we get are editorials describing Snowden as ‘ridiculously cinematic’ and that he’ll go down in history ‘as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood’,[13] or that:

The president knows all about it. It may be that this consensus is wrong, even immoral. But it’s not being executed without the knowledge of public officials elected by the people.[14]

This reassurance might come as a relief to some, but it seems that regulatory considerations, which must have already been in train when the Snowden story broke, have attracted more widespread media attention as a consequence of the Snowden allegations than they might otherwise have been granted by our mass media.  For example, Sweden’s data protection authority has ruled that its public sector should not use Google cloud services for concerns about its privacy policies – a ruling likely to be closely examined by EU regulators in their current deliberations on privacy and data protection.[15]  France is threatening Google with fines for privacy breaches,[16] and Spain has just announced it is pursuing possible breaches by Google of its own data protection laws.[17]  In Australia there was news that Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim has joined with none other international privacy guardians to demand answers from Google about its Glass product,[18] while the PRISM fallout was being considered at an altogether higher level still according to Foreign Minister Bob Carr.[19]

Full circle

Our little analysis of what Google might be, or not, is almost done.  It needs a word of caution: this is not an exercise in politics.  The critique does not imply any kind of endorsement for radical change or for the status quo.  It is merely a way of gaining perspective on Google’s activities, and to at look at what some of the less common, less orthodox ways of describing them.

Imagine, now, how much more complex and intricate a picture we could paint if we filled in the entire approach with more names and theories, with more detail to be examined, and with more different, contrasting perspectives on the various aspects we considered.  Imagine, instead, if we had used entirely different names and theories.  The point is that critical analysis requires some kind of anchor in a known framework or reference, with admitted influences and stated ideas.  In that way critical analysis differs sharply from blithe assertions backed by nothing but the premisses of the assertions themselves.  This latter route is often confused as objective reporting.

Consider the following from the Washington Post:

A high-profile legal showdown might help Google’s efforts to portray itself as aggressively resisting government surveillance, and a victory could bolster the company’s campaign to portray government surveillance requests as targeted narrowly and affecting only a small number of users.

In its petition, Google sought permission to publish information about how many government data requests the surveillance court approves and how many user accounts are affected. Google long has made regular reports with regard to other data demands from the U.S. government and other governments worldwide, but it has been forced to exclude requests from the surveillance court, which oversees an array of official monitoring efforts that target foreigners.[20]

Sounds really straight-forward and reasonable, doesn’t it?  But it assumes there are no extra-legal data exchanges between Google and US agencies, or with states internationally.  Why?  Because we don’t ordinarily question such things.  Just as we don’t ordinarily question the meaning of terms like ‘social media’, or ‘technology company’, or a whole slew of other euphemisms that conceal other meanings.  Built into the message from the article are base assumptions about the legitimacy of Google operations, the notion that the current issue is a purely legal one, and internal to the US, and also the notion that a small number of privacy intrusions is to be seen as quite normal.

Vic Gundotra.
Google’s Vic Gundotra: ‘If we do things that are evil, with one click you can leave Google. If we break the users’ trust, we can lose to competitors very quickly.’

It may be that such assumptions are to be considered normative in the context of US politics, society and culture.  It would nevertheless help to know what the assumptions are before accepting them uncritically, and without critical analysis that never happens.

Without driving the analysis engaged in here towards a specific call to action, as you might for your own purposes, we can nevertheless recognise two very uncontroversial conclusions: Google will not act with any kind of honour or ethics without being forced to by circumstances that might threaten its business model; and public opinion, particularly if expressed and reflected in mass media, is a powerful tool for instigating change in corporate behaviour.  Google could have launched legal action to reveal more of its surveillance collaboration at any time, but did not until the Snowden story broke and created public concern.

More generally, what we can conclude about the religion of techno-narcissism is that it adopts all the usual features of spiritual religions: ignorance; denial of alternative perspectives as heresy; faith in liturgy; and a proselytising character.  It may be a little bit more benign, but there are already signs of reductionist absolutism by which human qualities become less than human as they are shoehorned into technocrat artifices like algorithmic pattern matching, the always-on culture of being dictated to by gadgets rather than using them for human ends  In the same vein, we are frequently confronted with the dim-witted propositions that calling something ‘new’ works even when it’s not new at all, referring to ‘innovation’ is actually more than just a marketing word, and anything labelled as ‘technology’ is always good, regardless of its content.  What is lost here is that Marcuse predicted what technology would lead to 50 years ago, innovation has been largely just the expected miniaturisation, and technology, like guns, takes on the moral quality of those who wield it, and the ethical dimensions of their purposes.

If we feel like we’ve been lied to or misled as a consequence of this little analysis, maybe we should consider that we wilfully collaborated in the deceptions by just not looking too hard and just not asking any real questions.  That will do for our purposes here.

You and I can form larger or more forceful conclusions of our own.  Ultimately such conclusions remain merely interesting speculation unless they are also tied to action.  But that is an entirely different story, even in this benign context.



[1] Google does make a small return on ‘rents’ from corporate users of these toys, but it is not its main business.

[2] See McLuhan, Marshall (1964).  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  New York: McGraw Hill.  Chomsky, Noam; and Herman Edward (1988).  Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.  New York: Pantheon Books.  Unz, Ron (2013).  ‘Our American Pravda’.  The American Conservative, 29 April,, accessed 21 June 2013.  Friedersdorf, Conor (2013).  ‘Why Does the American Media Get Big Stories Wrong?’.  The Atlantic, 3 June,, accessed 21 June 2013.

[3] Packer, George (2013). ‘Change the World’.  The New Yorker, 27 May,, accessed 19 June 2013.

[4] Tucker, Ian (2013).  ‘Evgeny Morozov: “We are abandoning all the checks and balances”’, The Guardian, 10 March,, accessed 19June 2013; Babbage (2013).  ‘The Folly of Solutionism’.  The Economist, 2 May 2013,, accessed 19 June 2013.

[5] Kellner, Douglas (1991).  ‘Introduction to the Second Edition’, in Marcuse, Herbert (2002) One Dimensional Man, London: Routledge, pp xiv-xv.  Originally published in 1964.

[6] Op cit, pp xix-xx

[7] Op cit, p xxiv.

[8] Lazzarato, Maurizio, trans Emery, Ed (2005). ‘Towards an Inquiry into Immaterial Labour’., 1 November,, accessed 19 June 2013; Lazzarato, Maurizio (undated),  ‘Immaterial Labour’, Generation Online,, accessed 19 June 2013.

[9] Measuring a generation as 18 years – the time it takes from birth to legal adulthood in most Western nations.

[10] Gordon-Reed, Annette (2013).  ‘’ Critics of the Liberal Arts Are Wrong’, Time, 19 June,, accessed 19 June 2013.

[11] Metz, Cade (2009).  ‘Google chief: Only miscreants worry about net privacy’, The Register, 7 December,, accessed 21 June 2013.

[12] Sommer, Eric (2013).  ‘Google’s deep CIA and NSA connections’, Pravda, 17 June,, accessed 20 June 2013.

[13] Cohen, Richard (2013).  ‘The NSA is doing what Google does’, The Washington Post, 10 June,, accessed 20 June 2013.

[14] Cooper, Matthew, and Franke-Ruta, Garance (2013).  ‘Breathe, People: We Shouldn’t Rush to Judgment About Edward Snowden’, National Journal 11 June,, accessed 20 June 2013.

[15] Leyden, John (2013). ‘Swedish watchdog: Google’s chocolate cloud? Nej, not private’, The Register, 17 June,, accessed 20 June 2013.

[16] Walt, Vivienne (2013), ‘What’s Europe Got Against Google? France Threatens Fines Over Privacy’, 21 June, Time,, accessed 21 June 2013.  de Beaupuy, Francois, and Bodoni, Stephanie (2013).  ‘Google Gets 3 Months to Fix Privacy or Face French Fines’, Bloomberg, 20 June,, accessed 20 June 2013.

[17] Huet, Natalie, and Kane, Clare (2013).  ‘France, Spain take action against Google on privacy’, Reuters, 20 June,, accessed 21 June 2013.

[18] Hopewell, Luke (2013).  ‘Aussie Privacy Commissioner Got Cranky About Google Glass, Wrote A Letter’, Gizmodo Australia, 20 June,, accessed 20 June 2013.

[19] AAP (2013).  ‘Australians have no worries from PRISM internet monitoring: Carr’, The Australian Financial Review, 10 June,, accessed 21 June 2013.

[20] Ehrenfreund, Max (2013).  ‘Google, responding to Edward Snowden’s leaks, challenges gag order on NSA’, The Washington Post, 20 June,, accessed 21 June 2013


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