July 18, 2011

On innovation and saving the world: What does Google have to do with the Green Revolution?

Do you think Google will save the world? A recent article in The New Republic by Evengy Morozov posits that Google thinks that it can. But will Google be brought down by the structures of corporate greed and profit-mongering? The author sets up a dualism between the forces of good and evil in Google's quest for cyber-domination. While the author tends to paint Google in pejorative terms, and undervalues the positive benefits of technological innovation, he touches on themes that resonate with my own research.

According to the author, Google sees itself as a neo-Enlightenment institution to organize and diffuse knowledge. Readers of my blog will recognize that this Enlightenment-based, linear model of science and society interactions is mostly false. Certainly, we can use information as a tool in decision-making, but it's also now easier to pick and choose the information you want to believe using Google. And as Morozov points out, Google's "algorithmic neutrality" is embedded with assumptions that turn out to be fundamentally value-based. This is a theme I see over and over again in Science and Technology Studies.

Altogether, the author quite adeptly navigates the ethical quandaries of a huge corporation like Google. His core argument is that Google can hide from it's value-based agenda using technocratic ideals. The article's main flaw, however, is ignoring the co-production of science and society that is going on here. Google doesn't have monolithic control over the internet, and is constantly shaped by feedback from its users and how they choose to adapt Google to their own needs. 

This whole article reminded me of something I read in The Economist earlier this summer, about whether the technological advances of IBM or the philanthropy of the Carnegie Foundation have made a larger impact on our society:
At the same time, there was growing excitement about the capacity of expert knowledge to transform not just business but society, too. Carnegie and Rockefeller reflected this in calling their thoughtful, long-term approach to giving “scientific philanthropy” (today’s donors call it “strategic philanthropy”), which they contrasted with the short-term wastefulness of much of the charity of the time.
In a way, therefore, IBM and the Carnegie Corporation had similar missions. The Carnegie Corporation’s explicit goal was to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding”. Thomas Watson senior, who ran IBM for over 40 years, made “Think” its motto and built the business around “the idea that information was going to be the big thing in the 20th century”, according to Richard Tedlow, author of “The Watson Dynasty”. He established a research arm in 1917, which went on to generate world-class, blue-sky research as well as more patents than any other corporate laboratory. (The Economist, 2011)
 And of course, this brings us to a discussion of mid-century agricultural development efforts that are collectively referred to as the Green Revolution. Morozov also makes this connection, writing,
[Google's] efforts at spreading connectivity, building Internet infrastructure, and promoting geek culture in the developing world are a logical extension of the American-led modernization project—aimed at bringing underdeveloped societies to Western standards of living, often by touting fancy technological fixes such as contraceptives (to stabilize population growth) and high-yield crops (to solve the undernourishment problem)—that began in the 1960s... Google’s caveat to the classical modernization theory—stemming from Walt Rostow’s belief in take-off points, whereby countries, once they reach certain levels in their economic development, tend to move in the same direction—is intriguing. (Morozov, 2011).
I wrote a paper last semester about how the imagination of the food crisis and population bomb, from about the 1940s to 1970s, drove the U.S.'s international aid agendas from food aid to agricultural development (self-sufficiency of developing countries). This also reflects the influence of philanthropy of private foundations, although the U.S. Department of State got involved starting in the 1960s. While the Green Revolution ultimately resulted in higher yielding crops, this was by no means a politically-neutral path of technological development. Inherent values about the connections between higher yields as a technological fix to both hunger and population pressure shaped the research institutions that developed during this time. This impacts have also been unequally distributed, as technological innovations tend to spread first to more affluent "early adopters." One of the main things I learned from my historical research on the Green Revolution is that good intentions most often lead to complex and unintended outcomes, given the nature of technology and its interactions with society.

Google, however, is different than the Green Revolution. The capital required to purchase a simple smart phone and access Google's features is almost minuscule. end users, especially in developing countries, are terrifically proficient at adapting phones, and even entire telecommunication networks, to local needs and conditions.

Fortunately, international development agencies increasingly recognize the importance of technological innovation, in sectors as diverse as food security to maternal health. I sometimes wonder, if I could sit down with the founders of Google, or the administrator of USAID, what would I tell them about technological innovtion? Based on the story of Google, IBM, and philanthropists, what would you say?


  1. Google seems to have internalized many of the lessons from development theory. Google's search algorithm works with the architecture of the net, to the point where it's almost a perfect map. Any sufficiently "advanced" culture (text, mass media, web publishing) benefits from Google. While it might corrode the few remaining aboriginal cultures, the real action in the 21st century is in the favelas and other informal settlements. There, Google is a map that automatically generates itself from the movement of people through the 'social terrain'.

    As for Google's motto, "Don't be evil," I suspect that at some point soon, somebody will figure out how to use Google's tools to do immense evil. While IBM has in general been a force for good, its machines were used to coordinate the Holocaust. How much more evil will a more precise, more knowing, more omnipresent information system enable?

  2. Maybe Google is not so much a technological fix, but rather a "core input" (or carrier technology) along with other ICT's. I'm just fascinated by the amount of innovation and unpredictable outcomes of ICT's.

    As for your final question: a lot of evil. Ask anyone who's been scammed!

  3. Could be, could be. As for evil, I'm thinking somewhere between memetic character assassination (http://www.famouspictures.org/index.php?title=Dog_Poop_Girl), or action by Chinese "Netizens" against anti-CCP speach by Chinese nationals abroad, ranging all the way up to precision genocide, with targets marked for death by the bleat of information emitted from their cellphones.


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