by Ralph Nader
Mountain View, California - An invitation to visit Google's headquarters and meet some of the people who made this ten year old giant that is giving Microsoft the nervies has to start with wonder.
The "campus" keeps spreading with the growth of Google into more and more fields, even though advertising revenue still comprises over 90 percent of its total revenues. The company wants to "change the world," make all information digital and accessible through Google. Its company motto-is "Do No Evil," which comes under increasing scrutiny, especially in the firm's business with the national security state in Washington, D.C. and with the censors of Red China.
Google's two founders out of Stanford graduate school -Sergey Brin and Larry Page-place the highest premium on hiring smart, motivated people who provide their own edge and work their own hours.
We were given "the tour" before entering a large space to be asked and answer questions before an audience of wunderkinds. E-mail traffic was monitored worldwide with a variety of electronic globes with various lights marking which countries were experiencing high or low traffic. Africa was the least lit. One of our photographers started to take a picture but was politely waved away with a few proprietary words. A new breed of trade secrets.
I noticed all the places where food-free and nutritious-was available. The guide said that food is no further than 150 feet from any workplace. "How can they keep their weight down with all these tempting repasts?" I asked. "Wait," he said, leading us toward a large room where an almost eerie silence surrounded dozens of exercising Googlelites going through their solitary motions at 3:45 in the afternoon.
"How many hours do they work?" one of my colleagues asked. "We don't really know. As long as they want to," came the response.
In the amphitheatre, the director of communications and I started a Q and A, followed by more questions from the audience. It was followed by a YouTube interview. You can see both of them on: (Q&A) http://youtube.com/watch?v=KR-V6bl41zU and (Interview) http://youtube.com/watch?v=zzUrUNhIj4c&feature=related.
Google is a gigantic information means, bedecked with ever complex software, to what end? Information ideally leads to knowledge, then to judgment, then to wisdom and then to some action. As the ancient Chinese proverb succinctly put it-"To know and not to do is not to know."
But what happens when a company is riding an ever rising crest of digitized information avalanches without being able to catch its breath and ask, "information for what?" I commented that we have had more information available in the last twenty five years, though our country and world seem to be getting worse overall; measured by indicators of the human condition. With information being the "currency of democracy," conditions should be improving across the board.
"Knowledge for what?" I asked. Well, for starters, Google is trying to figure out how to put on its own Presidential debates, starting with one in New Orleans in the autumn. Certainly it can deliver an internet audience of considerable size. But will the major candidates balk if there are other candidates meeting criteria such as a majority of Americans wanting them to participate?
The present Commission on Presidential Debates is a private nonprofit corporation created and controlled by the Republican and Democratic Parties (see http://opendebates.org/). They do not want other seats on the stage and the television networks follow along with this exclusionary format.
Google, with its own Foundation looking for creative applications that produce results for the well-being of people, should hold regular public hearings on the ground around the country for ideas. They may be surprised by what people propose.
In any event, the examples of knowing but not doing are everywhere. More people succumbed to tuberculosis in the world last year than ten years ago. Medical scientists learned how to treat TB nearly fifty years ago. Knowledge alone is not enough.
For years the technology to present the up-to-date voting record of each member of Congress has been available. Yet only about a dozen legislators do so, led by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Chris Shays (R-CT). Recalcitrant power blocks what people most want directly from their lawmakers' website. Here Google can make the difference with Capitol Hill, if it wants to connect information technology to informed voters.
When the internet began, some of us thought that it would make it easy and cheap for people to band together for bargaining and lobbying as consumers. At last, the big banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, automobile firms and so forth would have organized countervailing consumer power with millions of members and ample full time staffs. It has not happened.
Clearly technology and information by themselves do not produce beneficial change. That depends on how decentralized political, economic and social power is exercised in a corporate society where the few decide for the many.
I left Google hoping for a more extensive follow-up conversation, grounded in Marcus Cicero's assertion, over 2000 years ago, that "Freedom is participation in power." That is what connects knowledge to beneficial action, if people have that freedom.
I hope my discussions with the Google staff produced some food for thought that percolates up the organization to Google's leaders.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
by Ralph Nader