Google's Bad Influence on Barack Obama

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Evgeny Morozov's latest broadside in The New Republic takes on new books about Google by Steven Levy and Siva Vaidhyanathan. As always, Morozov is philosophically sophisticated and constitutionally critical. I've always liked this about him, though he can come off as a bit reactive, prone to attack each and every position one can hold about the Internet's political potential. (What, if anything, does Morozov like, exactly? I find myself asking. Habermas, dude, Habermas.)

In his new review, he drives at a central problem for Google: the company's unwillingness to engage in the politics of its actions. Hiding behind the "Don't Be Evil" figleaf, Morozov argues, the company refuses to go beyond a simplistic technocratic worldview. It hides behind data, rather than using it. "Google has a similar philosophy: all social and political conflicts can be reduced to quantitative models," he writes. Easy answers "can be computed." There is a rather obvious and unfavorable connotation to this kind of thinking in Robert McNamara's Vietnam Era "whiz kids" (and other RAND Corporation initiatives). Let the data decide!

As someone who believes that far too much of the world runs on spreadsheets that mask the amount of uncertainty in the world, I'm very sympathetic to Morozov's critique.

But he takes it a bit further and looks at how "the idea of the company" may have exerted a negative influence on the Obama administration. By trying to apply Google's belief in technocratic merit to the polarized politics of America, he might have gotten off track. It's an intriguing connection that highlights an important reality about this country's discourse: The way our tech companies frame decisionmaking and progress exerts a strong and underrated cultural influence, which makes examining their ideologies as Levy and Vaidhyanathan have done all the more important.

Here's Morozov's longer argument:

When the then-candidate Obama visited Google's headquarters in 2007, he espoused the same belief in the workings of facts, truth, and reason that was evident in the mentality of the company's founders. Speaking of his plans to counter opposition to his health care plan, Obama said:

Every time we hit a glitch where somebody says, "Well, no, no, no, we can't lower drug prices because of, yeah, the R&D cost that drug companies need." Well, we'll present data and facts that make it more difficult for people to carry the water of the special interest because it's public. And if they start running Harry and Louise ads, I'll make my own ads or I'll send out something on YouTube ... I'll let them know what the facts are.

And then, expressing his admiration for Google, he added:

I am a big believer in reason, in facts, in evidence, in science, in feedback, everything that allows you to do what you do, that's what we should be doing in our government ... I want you helping us make policy based on facts, based on reason.

It is anyone's guess whether Obama still believes this two and a half years into his presidency... Facts, data, and Internet prowess alone did not get him very far; and it is worth pondering how much more successful he could have been had he not fallen under the sway of the technocratic temper and paid more attention to the ambiguities of the political process instead.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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