“Google Bigotry,” Corporate-Bashing & Human Envy

by on September 6, 2009 · 10 comments

Interesting piece from Jeff Jarvis about “Google Bigotry,” or his belief that “media people are going after Google’s success for no good reason other than their own jealousy.”  Jarvis argues that reporters penning hard-nosed stories about Google are, in reality, just a bunch of envious cry-babies:

newspaper people will use their last drops of ink to complain about Google’s success and try to blame it for their own failures rather than changing their own businesses. ..  It’s not just that they dislike the competition – and they do, for it is a new experience for too many of them. If they were smart, they’d use Google to get more audience and make more money but they don’t know how to (or rather, they’d prefer not to change). No, the problem is that Google represents change and a new world they’ve refused to understand.

Well, yes and no.  I don’t believe that every story penned about Google by a mainstream media reporter is rooted in envy, and certainly not the one that Jarvis alludes to as prompting him to pen this piece.  Jarvis apparently received an inquiry from a French journalist at Le Monde asking for comment about “an article about Google facing a rising tide of discontent concerning privacy and monopoly.”  That doesn’t necessarily sound like an unreasonable journalistic inquiry to me. So, I’m not sure it’s fair to accuse every journalist who calls with a hard-nosed question about privacy and antitrust as being guilty of “Google bigotry.”

That being said, some journalists are likely feeling a bit miffed about Google’s recent success, thinking it comes at their expense, and, therefore, their envy might be prompting some of them to pen attack stories on the company.  I think Jarvis in on stronger ground, however, in asserting that most privacy and antitrust complaints about Google are unfounded, and also based on envy. Indeed, Berin Szoka and I have have been cataloging the complaints that we believe are driven by an irrational form of corporate envy we call “Googlephobia.”  And in prior years we saw a similar form of Microsoft-bashing at work that we still have with us today. That’s why I think Jarvis is on to something when he notes that Google-bashing represents a broader sociological phenomenon:

Do some people complain about Google? Yes, it is often the same people who complain about the internet and about change and technology and simply use Google as their target simply because it is so big and so innovative.

In one sense, this gets back to my ongoing discussion of the debate between “Internet optimists &  pessimists” regarding  the impact of the Internet and digital technology on our lives.  I’m what you might call a “pragmatic Internet optimist” because I generally believe the Internet is reshaping our culture, economy, and society in most ways for the better, but not without some heartburn along the way. But there are plenty of Internet pessimists out there who have a deep sense of unease with the Digital Revolution and life in the Information Age and only focus on the disruptions caused by this transition.  Thus, because Google is in so many ways intertwined and identified with this digital revolution, it is more likely they will become the scapegoat for every supposed problem the Internet skeptics identify.

But, let’s not lose sight of the broader psychological or sociological phenomenon at work here when we talk about corporate-bashing more generally.  The root of this problem really is envy.  In his great book, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour (1966), the German sociologist Helmut Schoeck noted that, although it is part of life, when taken to extremes, “Envy can also turn man to destruction.” “The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself,” he noted. Schoeck also discussed the “harm envy, or its institutionalized consideration, can do to the process of economic growth” and pointed out how market success almost always breeds bitter reactions and responses:

It is virtually impossible to undertake innovations in a society, to improve or even to to develop an economy process, without becoming unequal. But when can a leader or innovator ever be sure that he will not incur the ill-will of those who do not immediately benefit from his activity?

That’s essentially the problem Google faces today, just as Microsoft did before them. They’ve built better mousetraps and the world beat a path to their doors to use them — and damn quick. And they got big and rich quick, too.  What isn’t there to envy about their success!  Who wouldn’t want to be in their shoes? And when that envy incentivizes further innovation to knock them off their perches, that’s a great thing.  But far too often envy just breeds contempt for success and leads to calls to — as Schoeck put it — “institutionalize envy”  by having the government confiscate wealth or innovations “for the public good.”  Microsoft has been living with this nightmare for over a decade, and Google is now facing similar regulatory problems as its enemies list growing longer by the day.  Antitrust simply becomes the club to deliver the envious blow.

Finally, speaking of antitrust, Jarvis has some things to say in his essay about the substantive accusations of monopoly and privacy violations by Google that I think are generally correct:

Google is not a monopoly. It is a competitive company and it took advertising dollars for one simple reason: because advertisers found a better deal there – buying performance, not scarcity, with Google sharing their risk – than they ever found in our old media…

Privacy? That is an overused word. The issue is not privacy, as I say in my book. It is control. You should also look at the benefits of publicness, which come when we share things about ourselves and find others like us. If you have problems with privacy then you have problems with every member of Facebook and its clones across the world and the entire generation that made social sites huge.

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