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The true cost of “free” social media

It’s free but… are we? George Gilder points a way forward.

It’s become clear in recent months that the fact that Google doesn’t own everything is not for want of trying. Philosopher of technology George Gilder argues, in Life after Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy that, contrary to appearances, Google is on the way down, a “utopian cult” “about to meet its nemesis” due to a conventional fact about the way the everyday world of computers works (Bell’s Law):

Gilder, a cofounder of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, has a long record of debunking conventional notions about how the world works. His groundbreaking book Wealth and Poverty (1981) debunked the idea that capitalism is driven by greed; Men and Marriage (1986) overturned the notion that chasing down so-called deadbeat dads was good social policy. His book on the microchip revolution, Microcosm (1990), made Moore’s Law — that the output of advanced digital technologies such as microchips will double every 18 months — a household term.

In his new book, it’s Bell’s Law that gets the center spread. Named after Digital Equipment Corporation engineer Gordon Bell, Bell’s Law states that every decade a hundredfold drop in the price of processing power creates a new computer architecture. This is what is happening now, Gilder argues: A new architecture for handling data and information is taking shape that will shake the Google empire to its foundations. Arthur L. Herman, “Google’s Unstable Empire” at National Review

George Gilder

Gilder thinks that expected massive increases in computing power will enable blockchain technologies that allow users to safely bypass the global data monopoly that Google and similar firms represent.

About that, we shall see. One recent discovery that makes Life after Google seem especially timely is the leak last Wednesday of a video showing VIPs at Google bemoaning the results of the US 2016 federal election and vowing action:

VP for Global Affairs Kent Walker argues that supporters of populist causes like the Trump campaign are motivated by “fear, xenophobia, hatred, and a desire for answers that may or may not be there.”

Later, Walker says that Google should fight to ensure the populist movement – not just in the U.S. but around the world – is merely a “blip” and a “hiccup” in a historical arc that “bends toward progress.”

CEO Sundar Pichai states that the company will develop machine learning and A.I. to combat what an employee described as “misinformation” shared by “low-information voters.” Allum Bokhari, “LEAKED VIDEO: Google Leadership’s Dismayed Reaction to Trump Election” at Breitbart

Most people worldwide did not suspect that the global company that provides a free mailbox in return for an audience for ad sales would also be fiddling with search results during elections.

And what was that we just heard about developing machine learning and AI to combat “low information voters”? In reality, low information voters often don’t get around to voting at all. Surprise outcomes like US 2016 (or, for that matter, Ontario 2018 in Canada) are typically driven by motivated and aware voters who want changes that most of the political establishment is not sponsoring.

We can be fairly sure that both the recent incriminating memo and now the video were leaked by employees who are not cool with their global company becoming a global superpower. They are shouting out to us. It probably doesn’t help that Google is already under scrutiny for violating anti-trust laws and under fire from within for a cozy relationship with China’s censors.

  Google has apparently responded to the leaked video, saying only that “Nothing was said at that meeting, or any other meeting, to suggest that any political bias ever influences the way we build or operate our products. To the contrary, our products are built for everyone, and we design them with extraordinary care to be a trustworthy source of information for everyone, without regard to political viewpoint.”

In a world where leaks happen, they will get a chance to demonstrate that going forward.

But, as Gilder observes, the practical problem isn’t the social media companies’ ambitions, it’s the fact that their services are “free”:

As Google’s former engineering director Alan Eustace once put it, “I look at people here as missionaries, not mercenaries” — i.e., they are not motivated by profit. Gilder notes, “The Google philosophy smacks of disdain for the money-grubbing of bourgeois society,” although its income still depends on advertisers who do the actual money-grubbing. In opposition to Eustace, Gilder quotes Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, which still makes money the old-fashioned way: “If the service is ‘free,’ you are not the customer but the product.”

From that point of view, we are all Google’s product. Google’s algorithms determine what content we will like and not like based on innumerable layers of data collected in the past, and then its search engine serves it up, giving us the illusion that we are freely choosing something. Its empire is a monopoly disguised as a middleman, which in reality manipulates information and data for its own ends, as the American public is only belatedly realizing. Arthur L. Herman, “Google’s Unstable Empire” at National Review

That’s certainly a lot to pay for “free.”

For comments on Life after Google by other reviewers, see Imagining Life after Google. We cannot really afford to take the big software, hardware, and social media companies who dominate our lives for granted as a free, neutral source of services anymore.

See also: Are social media companies violating anti-trust laws? DOJ to investigate The efforts of social media companies to meddle in politics may now be getting pushback from politicians


Senior Google scientist quits over Google’s censorship in China He believes it “contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”.

The true cost of “free” social media