Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Digerati Chronicles 2 - Goooood Google

Andrew Keen, whose uncovering of the evil conspiracy known as the Web 2.0 movement was covered here in February, takes on Google and its much publicized corporate motto of "Do no Evil":
IS GOOGLE GOOD OR EVIL? In Silicon Valley, Google's moral code is a contentious issue. To its local boosters, Google can do no ill; but to critics on both the left and the right, Google epitomizes all the worst hubris, hypocrisy, and greed of the era.

"Take their work in Africa," one idealistic entrepreneur, a Google booster, told me, at a recent technology summit. "Bank rolling the $100 laptop for African kids proves their commitment to human rights and universal justice."

"Google's China policy is much more revealing," counters a Google critic, an equally idealistic software engineer. "Google sold out to the communists. They couldn't care less about the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens."

Might Google be so unconventional as to exist outside traditional moral categories, to be simultaneously good and evil? On the Internet, anything is possible.

But artificial intelligence only goes so far. No Internet algorithm, even one authored by Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page, can explain the company's moral code. To answer this question, we must go offline, to Charles Taylor's 1991 study of unconventionality, The Ethics of Authenticity.

Taylor traces the modern idea of individual authenticity back to Rousseau's romantic theory of
the self. Taylor says that this conception of the individual transforms truth into a subjective notion that is peculiar to each individual soul. Thus, an established moral code or social convention means nothing to each individual. Only the self, in all its authentic glory, can encode its own morality. As Taylor writes:

Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover.

Consequently, each unconventional soul becomes, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "enclosed in their own hearts." Originality replaces a common ethical code as the source of individual morality. The result is the countercultural ethic of "doing your own thing" in which everyone is free to pursue their own conscience.

This ethic of authenticity is the key to understanding Google and, as a bonus, gives us a sneak preview of the next big thing in the global economy: authentic capitalism.

Keen's critique would be more useful if he wasn't trying so hard to shoehorn it into his own ideological cubbyhole. His charge that Brin and Page are taking directions from some philosophical creed known as "Authentic Capitalism" is not based on any apparent facts. A Google search (what else?) of "Authentic Capitalism" turns up only three pages of references, and the top three hits are to citations of his article. There is no philosophical school called "Authentic Capitalism", and it is apparent that Keen is trying to coin a buzzword.

But what of Keen's critique? Is there any validity to the notion that Page and Brin are throwing established morality to the winds based on their own subjective whims? Keen is guilty of the same error that many conservative, especially religious conservative critics make when passing judgment on those people who have different moral opinions from themselves. Keen's authenticity charge is no different than the charge of moral relativism leveled at secularists or non-conservatives. In fact there are in actuality very few true relativists. Moral judgments are necessarily highly subjective. Everyone perceives right and wrong through the subjective lens of their own conscience, experience, reason and worldview. Page and Brin are guilty of nothing more than what we all are guilty of - forming moral opinions.

The mere fact that Page and Brin use the language of conventional morality, including the words "good" and "evil", is evidence that they are not attempting to flout societal morality. Also, the fact that they feel it is important to explain the reasons for their decisions is a good indicator that they aren't acting in some sort of detached, "authentic" manner where they have no need to explain themselves to others.

Given that, the content of the moral opinions is certainly open to criticism. Keen contrasts their positions on two of Google's projects: their entry into the China search engine market, and their laptop giveaway in Africa:

Google's authentic capitalism means that any moral argument is valid, provided that the Google guys believe it. Clive Johnson, in his New York Times magazine piece, puts it succinctly, describing Google's China policy as being defined by the company's "halcyon concept of itself":

The carrot was Google's halcyon concept of itself, the belief that merely by improving access to information in an authoritarian country, it would be doing good. Certainly, the company's officials figured, it could do better than the local Chinese firms, which acquiesce to the censorship regime with a shrug. Sure, Google would have to censor the most politically sensitive Web sites--religious groups, democracy groups, memorials of the Tiananmen Square massacre--along with pornography. But that was only a tiny percentage of what Chinese users search for on Google. Google could still improve Chinese citizens' ability to learn about AIDS, environmental problems, avian flu, world markets.

Johnson goes on to quote Brin on why Google decided to collude with the authorities in Beijing.

Revenue, Brin told me, wasn't a big part of the equation. He said he thought it would be years before Google would make much if any profit in China. In fact, he argued, going into China "wasn't as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information. And we decided in the end that we should make this compromise."

One could argue with Brin's logic, but not with his belief in the virtue of his own argument. The unconventional Brin has so much faith in his own moral judgment that he felt completely confident he could make the right ethical decision on China.

That pretty much sums up moral reasoning: something is good if you believe it is good. So what is Keen's beef? How is his moral reasoning different? Does he ever consider something good that he doesn't believe is good?

Now I find Brin's faith in Information Uber Alles a tad bit naive. Does he really think that his search engine will give the Chinese people that much more information on AIDS and environmental problems than the homegrown search portals will? I'd say that Brin is being disingenuous if not downright dishonest in saying that the entry into China was not a revenue based decision. Google is bound to make a lot of money there. I'd say that Brin is guilty of moral posturing here.

I think where Keen drops the ball most seriously is in the lack of skepticism he directs at Google's Africa campaign, which I find worthy of as much scrutiny, at least, as their China decision.

On January 6 of this year, three weeks before launched, I attended Google co-founder Larry Page's keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Unsurprisingly, Page didn't speak about his China strategy. Instead he romanticized the bright side of Google's moral equation--their Africa policy:

Now let me switch gears to talk about a very serious issue. About 15 percent of the people in the world are on the Internet right now--15 per cent. We still have a huge way to go to get everyone online. . . . If you look at a picture of earth from space at night, you'll see that anywhere there's electric light, there's Internet, and anywhere there's Internet people are using Google. It all corresponds perfectly. But it's very sad that, for example, there are almost no queries coming from anywhere in Africa. I think that's an important thing to work on.

But in spite of this "sad" reality, Page had been "working on" a solution for the poverty of queries emanating out of the electronically dark African continent:

To try to help this, something we've been supporting is the MIT $100 Laptop Project. . . . It's a very cool project and they have very ambitious goals for it. They want to actually get 100 million of these out in the hands of children worldwide. It's also a very cool device, with a half a gigahertz processor, 128 megs of RAM and 500 megs of flash. And they're also doing a lot of cool things to get the price down. But I think it's really important to get devices like that out there in the world to give people greater access.

Getting a laptop into the hands of every African child isn't just a dream. In February of this year, a few weeks after Page's CES speech, Google announced the appointment of Silicon Valley visionary Larry Brilliant as executive director of company's $1 billion philanthropic arm. In a February 23 interview with Wired magazine, Brilliant articulated the value of providing underprivileged African children with laptop computers and wi-fi Internet access:

I envision a kid [in Africa] getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street.

Here is where, if Google were to challenge conventional morality, they should. Giveaways to Africa, that blighted continent of people who seemingly cannot deal with the challenges of life as independent moral agents responsible for their own fates as human beings, are seen nowadays as the sine qua non of humanitarian compassion. Live Aid made African famine relief a popular, if controversial, cause for the global Rock & Roll set. Bono took up the cause, and now demands debt relief for corrupt African governments. Even popular evangelists are not immune to dreaming up questionable schemes for saving Africans from themselves.

I certainly don't want to disparage the impulse to offer a helping hand to the unfortunate, but Africa's problems are not amenable to giveaways. In fact, they are generally worsened by these giveaways. The first problem is that the giveaways fuel the thriving corruption trade. Whether it is the vainglorious demagogue and dictator of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, who has enriched himself while simultaneously benkrupting and destroying his nation, or the warlords of Somalia who enriched themselves on the relief supplies sent to prevent widespread famine, the abuse and misuse of international aid and compassion by corrupt local officials and warlords has defined the post-colonial period in Africa.

The promise of relief can only foster a cargo cult mentality. The same social disasters that befell inner city communities as a result of widespread welfare programs in the US have been visited upon Africa tenfold. Sustained normalcy and prosperity in Africa will only come when African societies adopt the cultural reforms necessary to support entrepreneurship, democracy and capitalism. These things cannot be given to them, but their development can be thwarted by ill-conceived but well meaning relief programs.

Again, Page and Brin's reasoning for the laptop giveaway are naive in the extreme. For someone who is too poor to buy a laptop, a gift laptop will most likely be traded or sold for food or money, if it isn't stolen first. Until a community is stable and prosperous enough to allow for normal market activity, the information that can be gained from surfing the internet will be of little use to anyone in the community. And why is Brin so keen to leave adults out of the loop? I think that, to the extent that a community could be strengthened by access to information, it would derive more benefit by giving adults the access before the children. This is obviously one of those "think of the children" impulses.

But say that these laptops are given out in a community that is stable and prosperous enough to support an internet service provider. Such a community would probably contain a burgeoning entrepreneur community, small local dealers selling low cost computers. The giveaway will hurt their business, short circuiting a necessary business class in its infancy.

The best thing that Google could do to help Africa would be to enter the market as a for-profit enterprise selling goods and services tailored to the needs of the consumers there. They could partner with the nascent entrepreneurs there, and maybe provide them with drastically discounted, or free laptops to give to customers as an incentive to sign up for an internet account. They'd maybe be criticized as profiteers by the conventional press, but they would truly be helping the Africans out more than they would under the existing scheme.

The problem with the giveaway mentality is this: where noone is paying for a good, noone is making money. Cargo cults are disastrous for the formation of thriving economies. Why work when you can wait for the cargo gods to provide for you? Unfortunately, this is a case where it would be gooooood for Google to actually be as unconventional as they claim to be.

Errata: OK, so I didn't get my facts totally straight. The laptops are not a giveaway, but will be sold to governments to be used for schools. The program is called "One Laptop per Child", or OLPC. Here is the FAQ from their website.

Upon reading the FAQ, especially the following paragraph, another concern entirely comes to mind:

How will this initiative be structured?
The $100 laptop is being developed by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a Delaware-based, non-profit organization created by faculty members from the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. OLPC is based on constructionist theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, as well as the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte's book Being Digital. The founding corporate members are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, Nortel, and Red Hat.

So is it a good idea to use the world's poor children as the test subjects for a new educational fad? A better idea would be to provide the low cost technology unbundled from the educational content. Let each local government make decisions on the best educational philosophy independently of their hardware purchases. I smell an ideological Trojan Horse in the guise of a feel-good "Think of the Children" cause. Does Constructionism have any merit as an educational philosophy?

This essay by Papert gives some reasons for pause, beyond the mere, MEGO-like impenetrablility of its prose:
They are not the only ones who are so predisposed. In Chapter 9 of this volume, Sherry Turkel and I analyze the epistemological underpinnings of a number of contemporary cultural movements. We show how trends as different as feminist thought and the ethnography of science join with trends in the computer culture to favor forms of knowledge based on working with concrete materials rather than abstract propositions, and this too predisposes them to prefer learning in a constructionist rather than in an instructionist mode. In Chapter 2, I make a similar connection with political trends.

This sounds a lot like PC nonsense to me, with shades of Ebonics thrown in for good measure. Instruction is the new bogey? Here is the Wikipedia take:

Constructionism (in the context of learning) is the idea that people learn effectively through making things. Constructionism is connected with experiential learning and builds on some of the ideas of Jean Piaget.

As Seymour Papert and Idit Harel say at the start of Situating Constructionism, "It is easy enough to formulate simple catchy versions of the idea of constructionism; for example, thinking of it as 'learning-by-making'. One purpose of this introductory chapter is to orient the reader toward using the diversity in the volume to elaborate—to construct—a sense of constructionism much richer and more multifaceted, and very much deeper in its implications, than could be conveyed by any such formula."

Papert has been a huge proponent of bringing IT to classrooms, as in his early uses of the Logo language to teach mathematics to children. Constructionist learning involves students drawing their own conclusions through creative experimentation and the making of social objects. The constructionist teacher takes on a mediational role rather than adopting an instructionist position. Front of class teaching "at" students is replaced by assisting them to understand- and help one another to understand- problems in a hands on way.

While constructionism has, due to its impetus, been primarily used in science and mathematics teaching to date, it is arguable that it developed in a differerent form in the field of media studies in which students often engage with media theory and practice simultaneously, in a complementary praxis. More recently it has gained a foot hold in Applied linguistics, in the field of second language acquisition (or SLA). One such application has been the use of the popular game SimCity as a means of teaching english using constructionist techniques (Gromik:2004).

Yep, it's PC nonsense allright.


Blogger Oroborous said...

I agree with both you and Brin, regarding Google's China venture.

It's obviously at least somewhat about revenue.
But providing easy access to non-censored materials is valuable in and of itself, and some sensitive material is bound to leak in tangentially, through available sites.

Google may well be better than the home-grown Chinese search engines - after all, it's #1 in America based on utility.

May 06, 2006 10:06 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Factoid: 35 years ago, E.F. Schmacher, the 'small is beautiful' guy, was writing about how big corporations had laid off from taking over the Zambian plastics business, in order to support Kaunda's campaign for 'an egg a day for every Zambian.' (The Great Zambian Egg Crate Scheme)

I don't know whether Zambians get an egg a day yet or not (I suspect not), but until they've got the egg, giving them laptops is (probably) premature.

May 06, 2006 10:31 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

I have to agree that giving Africans laptops is "(probably) premature" and otherwise futile. However, I'm not quite as pessimistic as Duck or Harry on either the laptop concept or the constructionist approach to education.

It seems to me that dependency and cargo cults may require the giveaways to be consumables. A $100 laptop is not. Even if stolen or sold for food, it would likely remain in Africa with its only value and use being for computation and an information portal, thus providing knowledge and learning for the residents of Africa.

On the constructionist side, while that may not be the preferred method of learning, it is at least some method of learning, and beats no learning at all. In addition, classrooms, especially large ones, are known to be terribly ineffective.

Eventually, I suspect, most teaching will be done by a computer, even here in the United States. The teachers' unions, have, and will continue to do their utmost to ensure that doesn't happen, but there's no way an average single teacher can teach 20 or more children more effectively than computers with advance teaching programs that contain the knowledge of the best teachers and adapt to individual students needs.

May 06, 2006 10:19 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


You're setting up a false dichotomy. These computers will go to nations that can afford to buy them, ie they are already spending money on schools. The question is whether substituting these computers with their pre-loaded currucula will provide a better learning environment than regular classroom instruction. I am skeptical. Steve Jobs was an evangelist for putting computers in classrooms in the 80s, but now realizes it was somewhat of a pipedream to think that kids will learn so much better just because they do it on a computer.

Here is an article discusing Constructivism. There are a few illuminating paragraphs:

Constructivism is undoubtedly a major theoretical influence in contemporary science and mathematics education. Some would say it is the major influence. In its post-modernist and deconstructionist form, it is a significant influence in literary, artistic, history and religious education. Constructivism seemingly fits in with, and supports, a range of multicultural, feminist and broadly reformist programmes in education. Although constructivism began as a theory of learning, it has progressively expanded its dominion, becoming a theory of teaching, a theory of education, a theory of the origin of ideas, and a theory of both personal knowledge and scientific knowledge. Indeed constructivism has become education’s version of the ‘grand unified theory’.
There is also a political dimension to much constructivist writing. Two constructivist writers say that they are ‘committed to the philosophy and principles of composite grades and mixed-ability groupings’ (Brass & Duke 1994, p. 100). Another writer has identified the Progressive Education tradition as constructivist, and the British Plowden Report of the mid-1960s as the embodiment of constructivist school organisation (Hawkins 1994).

A number of constructivists align themselves with the Critical Theory of Michael Apple, Henry Giroux and Stanley Aronowitz. One New Zealand commentator says that ‘There are many parallels between the literature on the development of critical pedagogy [and] the literature on constructivist learning’ (Gilbert 1993, p. 35). This is because, ‘Critical theorists question the value of such concepts as individualism, efficiency, rationality and objectivity, and the forms of curriculum and pedagogy that have developed from these concepts’ (Gilbert 1993, p. 20).

For some, constructivism is even larger than a theory of learning, education and science; it is almost a worldview or weltanschuung. Yvon Pépin, quoted above, goes on to say that constructivism: ‘also offers a global perspective on the meaning of the human adventure, on the way human beings impart meaning to their whole existence in order to survive and adapt’ (Pépin 174). Whilst another constructivist writes:

To become a constructivist is to use constructivism as a referent for thoughts and actions. That is to say when thinking or acting, beliefs associated with constructivism assume a higher value than other beliefs. For a variety of reasons the process is not easy. (Tobin 1991, p. 1)


Constructivism has done a service to science and mathematics education: by alerting teachers to the function of prior learning and extant concepts in the process of learning new material, by stressing the importance of understanding as a goal of science instruction, by fostering pupil engagement in lessons, and other such progressive matters. But liberal educationalists can rightly say that these are pedagogical commonplaces, the recognition of which goes back at least to Socrates. It is clear that the best of constructivist pedagogy can be had without constructivist epistemology – Socrates, Montaigne, Locke, Mill, and Russell are just some who have conjoined engaging, constructivist-like, pedagogy with non-constructivist epistemology.

Constructivism has also done a service by making educators aware of the human dimension of science: its fallibility, its connection to culture and interests, the place of convention in scientific theory, the historicity of concepts, the complex procedures of theory appraisal, and much else. But again realist philosophers can rightly maintain that constructivism does not have a monopoly on these insights. They can be found in the work of thinkers as diverse as Mach, Duhem, Bachelard, Popper, and Polanyi.

I wonder if these people are more interested in spreading a philosophy than in providing resources for the education of poor children.

May 08, 2006 6:36 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Duck wrote: "These computers will go to nations that can afford to buy them, ie they are already spending money on schools."

Yeah, that's probably right, especially since it costs nothing to hire a teacher in most of those countries (though maybe not a very good teacher).

Duck wrote: "Steve Jobs was an evangelist for putting computers in classrooms in the 80s, but now realizes it was somewhat of a pipedream to think that kids will learn so much better just because they do it on a computer."

The 80s were too early - computers were too primitive. The fact remains that classroom lectures are far, far less effective at teaching than one on one tutoring. Computers will one day bridge the gap.

Duck wrote: "I wonder if these people are more interested in spreading a philosophy..."

As you know, I don't particularly like injecting dogma of any kind into the classroom. I'm also a little skeptical that a bunch of professors are going to come up with the most cost effective laptop. All in all, I agree with what you're saying, I'm just not quite as pessimistic.

May 09, 2006 7:41 PM  

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