When Google left China in early 2010, many attributed Google’s move as a valiant and moral response to the Chinese government’s strict information filtering rules. I disagreed with this point of view and wrote a post on Cultural Bytes on what I thought were the real reasons for Google’s quick departure from China.
A few months later, I was asked to keynote the New Directions in the Humanities Conference at UCLA on June 29, 2010. This gave me the chance to rethink some of the original comments I made back in early 2010. In my original post, I argued that Google failed to create successful brand recognition in the Chinese market, to launch a recognizable marketing campaign that stood out against Baidu (the reigning search engine in China), and to understand the values of non-elite users in China. I then suggested that Google should’ve put more time in understanding the cultural orientations of Chinese users before expecting services that they had originally developed for Western users to just be readily embraced by Chinese consumers.
As I started preparing for my talk, I began thinking more about why the world’s largest search engine left the largest online market. I realized that my original post only barely scraped the surface of the Google-China saga. The bigger issue was more than a matter of Google failing to conduct proper ethnography and user tests on the Chinese market. The real issue is that China and Google see the world in different ways and this informs their outlook on how access to information should be mediated. And ultimately Google assumed that their world view would eventually trump China’s.
For my keynote, I make the case that Google failed in China for two reasons. First, drawing upon the ideas that I made in my original post, I discuss how Google never created useful services for non-elite digital users based off of my ethnographic work in China.
Second, I argue that the Google-China saga is an example of a contemporary clash in moral orders centered around information politics. Google exemplifies a hacker ethic that can be traced back to Enlightenment ideals of individual achievement while China reflects Confucian cultural norms of social harmony that emerged 2,400 years ago during the early Han dynasty. A moral order rooted in Enlightenment ideals rewards rebels, while a moral order rooted in Confucian ideals rewards followers.
Access to information has become a battle site of cultural imperialism. Information politics is ultimately a struggle over meaning and symbols. Google, one of the main players, has successfully linked the commodification of information to an ethical system of social change which I call “neo-informationalism,” a retooling of neo-liberal ideals and a re-envisioning of imperialism based on information as a primary means to wealth expansion in the digital age.
My talk is split into 3 parts. I explain the history of the Google-China saga and my disclaimers in the introduction. Part 1 is about why Google failed in China due to a lack of deep cultural understanding of the market. Part 2 is about how Google and China ascribe to differing moral orders. Part 3 is about Google’s unintentional engagement in imperialism. And in my conclusion I provide directions for technologists, academics, and businesses for how to move forward with lessons from the Google-China saga.
Here’s an excerpt from Part 3 and the conclusion. Pease take a look at my talk here (pdf download here). My assertions will make much more sense when the talk is read in its entirety. I’ve also included footnotes for follow up readings in the full version. The slides that go along with my talk can be viewed/downloaded here. And some pics from the conference here, and lastly the audio from the conference talk is here.
So let’s go directly into Part 3!
*I look forward to your thoughts on this topic. Plus, this is only the beginning of the Google-China saga!
From doing business with guns, germs, and steel to computers, code, and clouds
Some business analysts, politicians, and the Western media cheered Google on for standing up to China and relocating to Hong Kong which, mind you, is still a part of China. Others thought that the sheer size of the Chinese market would sway Google to stay in China, much like Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. But I want to highlight one particular analysis.
Umair Haque, an economist and Director of the Havas Media Lab, claimed on the Harvard Business Review blog that by leaving China Google had taken an ethically motivated, not an economically motivated stance. He argued that Google’s decision gives them an
“ethical edge…that’s always been at the heart of Google’s disruptive success.” “…a Google that doesn’t play by China’s rules is a better business, which creates more thicker [sic], sustainable, meaningful value.”
In his Awesomeness Manifesto, he asserted that corporations engaged in “ethical production” are more financially successful and meaningful than those that don’t because they innovate in the name of a “higher calling” not in the name of profits.
Let’s consider Umair’s proposal on Google’s ethical edge.
I agree that Google believes that they have an “ethical edge.” They believe that they draw upon the qualities that stand opposite from evil— benevolence, compassion, and kindness— to serve their higher-calling of introducing the world to information.
But I absolutely disagree with Umair that this “ethical edge” is anything new. This is a common moral trope of colonialism, imperialism, globalization, and neo-liberalism: ethical beliefs that justify expansionary practices of extracting commodities and creating new markets in the name of a “higher calling.”
But instead of extracting spices, opium, gold, bodies, labor or oil, Google was trying to extract information from the Chinese market and then commodify that information as it provided it back to Chinese consumers — ostensibly in the name of “freedom”. The weapon of choice is no longer guns, germs, and steel, but free-information, open platforms, and distributed architectures.
Tropes of colonialism
To be fair, this “ethical edge” isn’t just being practiced by Google. It’s also practiced by countless other technology companies that make their way from the West to other continents. It’s also the very rhetoric employed by many proponents of the free and open-source software movement, the ICT4D field (Information Communication Technology for Development), and OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) community.
So I ask us, why are we so invested in the idea of Google being in mainland China? I suspect that one of the reasons is that Google’s relocation of its servers to Hong Kong opened up an existing set of anxieties among ourselves about America’s place in the global order.
But what Americans don’t get is that this openness is contingent upon America’s vision of keeping markets open, tearing down national borders, and creating an open ICT network that preserves America’s interest in being the world’s police, superpower and economic leader.
We thought that we could bring the internet to the world and the architecture would remain open. What we didn’t expect was for countries to use the internet to advance their own agendas in the same way that the US was already doing: using their own culture, policies, and system of ethics.
Algorithms of social change: new technologies, same old games
And here’s the kicker - in leaving China because the Chinese government wouldn’t conform to their rules, Google reproduced the very imperialistic behavior that have characterized the greatest imperial powers: leaving a country or region when they couldn’t get the natives to abandon their own way of thinking or adopt a new way of behaving.
What’s emerging is a new rhetoric of development and globalization in what I am calling neo-informationalism: the belief that information should function like currency in free-market capitalism - border-less, free from regulation, and mobile. The logic of neo-informationalism rests on an moral framework that is tied to what Morgan Ames calls “information determinism,” the belief that free and open access to information can create social change. This moral framework of neo-informationalism is so naturalized that Google and like-minded companies work their way around the world unquestioned for their position on open information. Phrases such as “information wants to be free” reflect the techno-anthropomorphizing of information, a necessary step in naturalizing any neo-informationalist agenda.
Neo-informationalism is a re-visioning of a non-redistributive laissez-faire ideology of modernization theory transplanted into Western technologies that assumes surely people cannot be self-sufficient without unlimited access to the tools that connect them to the world wide web. Underlying this ideology is the notion that information openness and market openness are inseparable and non-mutually exclusive. Information openness can only be achieved through free-market conditions.
This is a model of social change that puts faith in objects, not in governance processes. Neo-informationalism and neo-liberalism work symbiotically to create what Wendy Brown calls the governed citizen who seeks solutions in products as opposed to the political process. While Wendy wasn’t speaking of technological objects per se, I make the case that this is indeed a variant of the hacker ethic; social change is made through direct programming of software code and interaction with technological devices while maintaining distance from the state.
What I want to point out is that while this is a very reasonable process being accomplished by very reasonable people — Westerners creating products and policies for Westerners - I am not comfortable with pushing this belief on others in the name of a “higher calling.” This is a simply a redux of cultural imperialism that says “we know better than you, and if you don’t believe us, too bad you have no choice, because we’re offering you emancipation by giving you access to our Internets.”
We should question any ethical system that reproduces a familiar trope of colonialism. Whereas past waves of imperialism used Religion, Science, or Globalization as a rhetoric of development, the new rhetoric of neo-informationalism is used as a guiding principle for entering new regions—ethical principles that can be used as proxies for pushing our belief system onto other people. As a result, the work can be less about free information and unlimited compassion and more about desires for free-access to new markets and new commodities.
So does this mean that we have to give up on Google? No, the world doesn’t work in binaries and neither should you nor I. I depend on Google for most of on my online communication. I’m known among my friends as a Google evangelist. I force my friends onto gmail and its amazing filtering capabilities. I heart Google and could talk about its services ad naseum. But while I love the technical aspects of Google’s products, I am at the same time critical of the limits and affordances of its technologies. Technologies are never just technologies. They are machines laden with cultural expectations imbued by their creators.
But herein lies my fear: What if we start thinking that there is no alternative to the institution of Google? What if the “Google model” starts to become what we think of as the most natural way to do things? We need to question any ”reality that presents itself as natural”and that includes something as apparently innocuous as Google.
We need to make sure that we don’t succumb to Googlist Realism. Much like Capitalist Realism, the belief that there is no alternative to the reality of capitalism as a way of life, Googlist Realism is the belief that there is no alternative to Google as our search engine and as our gatekeeper of information. The belief that capitalism can improve life is now supplanted by the free-information regimes of neo-informationalism - the belief that unfettered information access is life.
Google has successfully linked the commodification of information to an ethical system of social change. This rhetoric is so strong that I worry that we could lose our imagination for any other form of information reality or social change outside of a Google-like model. I also worry that those who question this model will be framed as enemies of freedom, information, and social change.
Google and China have their own visions for the social life of information and for the role of information in society. We should be equally critical of a corporation with algorithms that create a consensual consumer culture based on advertising clicks as we are of a country with policies that create a consensual citizenry based on obedience through a paternalistic form of governance.
But we should also be equally hopeful of a corporation with digital applications that create access to information that was reserved for the privileged as we are of a country with social policies that empower people to explore their talents and scale their services through government-supported, free-market entrepreneurship.
Summarizing the five main points that I’ve made today
1. As countries create their own internet policies, information politics will become a key site of contestation in a globally networked society.
As corporations and governments use the ethics of neo-informationalism to look for new markets and cheap labor, some countries will also counter these efforts with their own ethics. Capitalist growth depends not only on the physical architecture of ICTs, but also on the reach of an ethical system to support the open use of ICTs. Ethics do matter. In the absence of religious or governmental heroes, the digital economy also needs its own goddesses.
Just as we’ve created public institutions to regulate, debate, and check transnational corporations in times of excess neo-liberalism, we’ve got to create similar institutions for information in times of excess neo-informationalism. As Theodore Porter demonstrated in his insightful work on accounting as a system of information and a site of ethical battles, “the history of information is almost synonymous with the history of large enterprises.”
2. Information disjunctures will increasingly fall along moral and ethical disagreements between institutions, reflecting tensions in regional values and beliefs.
Institutions that mediate information will increasingly have to deal with a diversity of moral orders that are regionally specific, originally proposed in the the “Górniak hypothesis” in 1996. We have to realize that just like any other institution, the internet will be implemented and used in such a way that it maps onto existing social forces, institutions, and values.
That is why understanding regional internet culture is important.
Here I draw upon institutional theory and in particular Philip Agre’s amplification model of how new institutions don’t necessarily create new social behaviors, rather they amplify existing ones. This theory explains why Google has not “changed” China to become a nation modeled in the image of the US. Even something as open as the internet will be localized. This is because 1.) not all people/countries are the same and 2.) not all sovereign nations will welcome neo-informationalism as envisioned by the West. Many countries and individuals are suspicious of how “The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, alongside the U.S. Trade Representative, the Federal Communications Commission, and other apostles of neo-liberalism, used multiple levers to pry open global networking to corporate-commercial investment” argues Dan Schiller.
3. I also argue that what’s at stake in the clashes of moral orders is the determination of meaning. Google isn’t just an information processing entity, it is a meaning-making entity.
As a meaning-making institution, Google is in the business of standardizing and universalizing the domination of “autonomous [and public] information” as attached to democracy, liberation, and excellence (Porter 228). Whoever controls information and the means of dissemination, controls meaning and the symbols associated with it—hence culture.
For nation-states, culture becomes an even more powerful instrument of social control which will increasingly be mediated through digital means.
For corporations, culture becomes an an ever more powerful instrument of profit and this will increasingly be mediated over digital information spaces where our desires and preferences can be sorted and indexed.
4. There is a diversity in cultural orientations and they matter in how technologies are used, received, and created.
As companies start designing more software for a diversity of communities and conditions around the world, there is a greater need to understand how culture is exhibited in emotive and tangible ways. We can no longer ascribe to traditional binaries that place culture on a local level and money on a global scale. However geographically stationary some groups may be, ideas and energies are mobile. But this does not necessarily mean that mobility leads to greater flows in cooperation, rather it can also lead to greater fluxes in stability. A nuanced understanding of cultural orientations as an ongoing narrative will be required to navigate this space.
5. Institutions will continue to make attempts to bound the internet. But in a digitally-mediated network society where communication streams and physical contact are more frequent than ever, it becomes harder to maintain silos of communication. The digital mobility of ideas, people, and images means that moral orders are coming into contact with each other.
As information, culture, symbols, and ideas become more mobile, it will become harder for any entity to unilaterally enforce their own moral orders. Because of this, we’re going to see more collisions in moral orders as information becomes destabilized and detached from its geographic point of origin.
The internet is a host to amazing forms of participatory culture and will continue to be so precisely because its network architecture allows a diversity of interactions to take place - from gated communities to open spaces. Nation-states can try to create a bounded internet, but with some people and ideas more mobile than ever before, it becomes harder to enforce global digital walls.
In a digitally mediated world, the logics of replication do not function according to a mechanical order. A la Gilles Deleuze, Manual de Landa, and Felix Guattari, I think of Lucretius’s quote on atoms:
“When atoms are traveling straight down through empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places, they swerve every so little from their course, just so much that you would call it a change of direction. If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom on atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything.”
As the moral orders of nations collide, some will clash and some will cohere. But the guarantee is that something is going to happen. It’s already started and we’re going to need people to deconstruct this and place what’s happening in context amid all the noise.
Values in our technologies
Let us be attentive to the values that shape the way we interact with information and the architectures that mediate it.
Today I’ve talked about how beliefs and values are layered onto our technologies and inform our expectations for how they are used. These technologies are never just technical, but they are social and luckily for us they are observable.
A few week ago, Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple said, ”We’re not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the world,” he said. ”It’s the marriage of that plus the humanities and the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple.”
Let us be in dialogue with Steve Jobs and Google with some liberal arts magic. Kant, Bentham, and Descartes drew up a new ethical order at the turn of the Industrial Revolution that was a response to the social transformation from the printing age. This is happening now for the interneting age. The liberal arts is positioned with the analytical tools to be part of this dialogue. We should be doing all that we can to make our work public.
We cannot just leave this agenda to the technologists. We cannot let the new myths about freedom and information to pass without question. We must use critical theory, ethnographic methods, and common-sense to question how cultural values play out, in and around technology. Values not only reproduce contemporary tensions, but they are also sites of contestation.
*UPDATE: here are some articles published after my talk (June 29, 2010) that I think are worth the read
- July 23, 2010. Paul Denlinger. Google China Is Struggling To Rebuild Its Business
- July 15, 2010. Paul Denlinger. Who Won in Google’s Showdown with China?
- July 10, 2010. Kai Pan. Henry Blodget Doesn’t Know Crap About the Google China Drama.
- July 11, 2010. Paul Denlinger China: Google backed Down Over Censorship Laws
UPDATE - September 18, 2010: I extend some of the ideas I first introduced on neo-informationalism on my commentary about digital imperialism and Haystack.