Happy Birthday, Sergey Brin!

Source: Wikimedia

Today marks the birthday of Sergey Brin of Google fame (born August 21, 1973) and the first public presentation of William Burroughs’ calculating machine in 1888. The calculating machine formed the basis of a company that made some of the first modern computers, Unisys. Google was officially launched 110 years later.

Sergey Brin, who along with Larry Page founded Google, is sometimes credited with the statement that “knowledge is always good, and certainly better than ignorance,” which forms the basis for Google’s mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” He’s also behind the infamous, unofficial Google motto “Don’t be evil,” which Google recently (2018) found appropriate to drop from the preface of its code of conduct, once more demonstrating how youthful ideals get eroded by power, greed, and what is generally perceived as pragmatism in business.

While Brin is not a philosopher, his life’s work, the creation of Google and Alphabet, has so fundamentally transformed society that it is infinitely more relevant to philosophy and society than the works of most people who call themselves philosophers in academia. Google has not only changed the way we all (including philosophers) search for knowledge, how we manage and publish it, but also how we reach our audience and how we interact with each other. It has caused the decline of traditional publishing and the rise of YouTube celebrities and social media influencers. Google and its researchers brought us the final defeat of humans to machines in the game of Go, the decline of concentration and attention in reading, a global threat to human rights, privacy and dignity, the commodisation of human beings, advanced tax evasion, free culture, the sharing economy and the killer robots of Boston Dynamics. They also brought back the previously outmoded concept of a king: arguably, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Tim Cook deserve the royal title just as much as, if not more than, Louis XIV and Elizabeth II. They lead economies many times the size of small countries, are free of the interference of commoners in their governance, can ignore democratic laws at will, are not accountable for their decisions, can censor content and exclude users by creating arbitrary rules out of thin air, even in defiance of state laws, and can pressure legitimate states into creating laws in their favour.

Photo by Eliabe Costa on Unsplash

Is Google making us stupid? In its wonderfully insightful early essay in the Atlantic (2008), Nicholas Carr reminds us of how Socrates and Plato thought that writing would degrade the human ability to memorise things and how it would reduce the mental abilities of people. In the same way, Google, in giving us universal access to knowledge, has taken away our ownership of it. When I was a student, thirty or so years ago, the saying went that the expert does not need to memorise every fact — she just needed to know where to look it up. But this was a lie. In a time where ‘looking up’ meant walking to the library, searching for the right floor and section, then diving into a paper index card catalogue, and finally coming up with three books that mentioned the desired fact on pages 84, 175 and 429, the expert really needed to have all the required knowledge in his brain all the time. There just wasn’t enough time for multiple trips to the library each day.

Since Sergey Brin put the library into our phones, and the whole mobile industry (which required Google in the first place in order to create a really useful product) put it into our pockets, the old saying has finally become true. Today, although I professionally teach Kant and Aristotle in a university, I don’t remember the precise life dates of either. Any time I need them, I quickly google them. Am I less of an expert for that? Who knows, I might be.

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Google, having the economic power of many states but without the democratic legitimacy, has also revived old debates in political theory. What makes a state? How far should sovereign states be able to control private enterprise? Should Google pay taxes like every other company, or is the public benefit it provides a good reason to classify it as a charity, or a public utility? Should we let Google skip the taxation because it gives us the maps and the knowledge that our society depends on? And can governments effectively control a company on whose services the whole economy relies for its functioning? Would our governments and our states still work if Google switched off Android, Maps, and Search, or would they descend into anarchy and chaos?

Google used to have the motto “don’t be evil.” Many of us loved it for that. But what does that really mean? Is it evil to withhold taxes? Is it evil to transform users into product? Google has collaborated with the Pentagon on killer robots (and later, temporarily, stepped back after an outcry from its own employees). For a time it owned Boston Dynamics, makers of war robots and even more scary hardware, like the robot dog “Spot Mini” (look it up). Google records and monetises the users’ location without their permission, and even against their wishes (see the recent news on this latest scandal). It is in talks on collaborating with the Chinese government on a censored version of its search engine, one that will pretend that no Tiananmen massacre ever happened, and that won’t know about the Winnie the Pooh (because people liken him to Chinese autocrator Xi Jinping).

If it is evil to collaborate with Chinese censorship, why is it not evil to collaborate with European privacy laws? Should Google collaborate with both, with neither, or selectively with one but not the other? Should Google have the right to evaluate the moral quality and legitimacy of state laws in individual countries? Or should it be required to obey every law in every country, including laws of dictatorships? When the next Third Reich comes along (and it’s only a matter of time, if one looks at the global situation), should Google cooperate and become the government’s ‘Volkssearch’, or should it uphold the timeless values of humanity, human dignity, freedom, and democracy? And what if the Third Reich is not immediately recognisable as such, because it will only slowly, gradually emerge from the familiar features of American society, or Hungarian, or Turkish, or Chinese state power?

Sergey Brin celebrates a birthday today. He gave us, almost single-handedly, modern life. He gave us the promise of unlimited knowledge, but, like every apprentice magician, he doesn’t know the right spell to stop the magic from taking over our lives, our world, and our human dignity. It is our job now to make sense of how and what exactly went wrong, to understand what we want from the toy that he gave us, and to find out how we can switch it off before it eats us alive.

Happy Birthday, Sergey Brin. And, thanks.

This post is part of a series of daily “Happy Birthday” posts. Find more articles like this one here: