Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
The media fosters intellectual conformity. Is Google taking the same path?
Two days ago I wrote about Google Camp, a secretive, high-security, annual extravaganza involving the hyper wealthy and the world famous. This year’s theme was climate change. Ironic, given that participants arrived aboard more than 100 private airplanes.
While the UK press judged this event to be newsworthy, most of the US and Canadian media said not one word about it. Making climate warriors look bad isn’t what North American journalists do.
But there are other reasons it should have been reported on aggressively. Google is the kind of multinational tech giant that may be getting too big and too powerful for society’s good. It wields enormous influence, yet is subject to few checks and balances.
There are many ways in which companies such as Google can covertly influence elections, undermining democracy itself (see here and here). From this perspective, sustained scrutiny of Google may be even more important than scrutiny of a particular government or a particular political leader. Presidents come and go. Google remains, accreting and accumulating.
What is the purpose, one wonders, of throwing a no-expense-spared party for the massively privileged each year? What does Google get out of it? What does it expect in return?
It seems to me this is a soft way of encouraging conformity of opinion amongst film stars, musicians, and athletes who all have their own Twitter and Instagram accounts. Not sure climate change is a big deal? For heaven’s sake, don’t say so publicly. You wouldn’t want to get on Google’s ‘naughty’ list and never be invited back.
But conformity of opinion is not a social good. If one of the world’s most powerful corporations is nurturing groupthink, what are the consequences for the larger community?
This isn’t a new concern. Back in 1978, when future Google founders Sergely Brin and Larry Page were cute five-year-olds, legendary Soviet human rights activist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn delivered a commencement address at Harvard.
By then he’d been in the West long enough to compare and contrast with the totalitarian East Bloc. In his view, Western journalists were incredibly influential. Yet rather than using their freedom to ignite wide-ranging debate, their everyday choices produced narrow conformity. Strangely, people who should have been endlessly curious about the world, chose not to be:
the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: by what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?
…someone coming from the East…gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment…the sum effect being not competition but unification.
…Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day.
…There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. [bold added]
The world needs fearless, original thinkers – not conformist androids singing from the same chapter of the same hymn book.
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