Are We Just Too Cynical for Google?


This was the week of Google in the German press. The “Spiegel” opened with a big title story on Monday, warning that Google knows more about us than we do. The story is actually highly recommendable as an overview of all the different products, projects and initiatives coming from the search giant in recent times and how they – might – lock together. On Tuesday, the “Sueddeutsche Zeitung” dedicated its feature-focus page 2 to Google’s China affairs. And yesterday, the “Zeit” closed the circle with both a frontpage warning of the loss of our privacy and a round-up of “interpretations” of the Nexus One and the role of “God Google” in general in the Feuilleton (= culture section) from four of the paper’s top writers.

While Google’s reaction to the Chinese government’s hacking of Gmail accounts wins them a lot of respect, two things are driving critics up the pole in Germany. Firstly, Eric Schmitt’s statement that “if you do something that you don’t want others to know about, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” (my back translation, sorry). Secondly, Google’s intensified street presence, capturing data for Street View, provoking local protesters who consider it a breach of their privacy if their house can be viewed online by every address trader and mortgage bank clerk.

A particularly gloomy scenario is painted in the “Spiegel”. If, in the evolution of Goggles, Google can link faces to personal data, we are all fully transparent for everyone pointing a cameraphone at us, without the least chance of hiding, or just seeking decency, behind aliases, or any chance of rebooting our career or our life.

The lowest point of “critical journalism” is reached with the Zeit’s answers of the question “Is Google our new God?”. Every one of the four smart experts of the arts got carried away on the technophobic reflex that’s so customary among German intellectuals, flying high on the wings of their ignorance and arriving at statements that sound clever but turn out as stupid at first sight. In the authors’ categories, these four articles are equivalent to a book review that’s based on reading the back-cover of a foreign language edition.

What amazes me most after reading through this week’s pile of G coverage is that we seem to be too cynical to even consider that Google might only be doing good. After all, they have given us access to information that was nearly out of reach for most before. And move forward from there with every product. Getting almost all of their revenue from advertisers, they have nonetheless never sold their users’ privacy; but have instead almost re-invented advertising as an honest business without cynicism and double-speak.

Maybe it’s just because of the sheer size of it. With our searches we all have force-fed Google to grow from the likable outsider into one of the biggest companies in the world. And we have learned from more than one example that big corporations must eventually turn into rampaging bureaucracies that lose touch with their customers and with what they’re in the world to do for them.

It may be unlikely but telling from the evidence we have until this day it’s still not completely impossible that Google is of a different kind.

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