Conservative online media exploded yesterday with another story about Google. To celebrate one day -- the birthday of the labor activist Cesar Chavez -- Google had swapped into its homepage a doodle featuring the activist's face. Of course, yesterday was also celebrated by millions around the world for another reason altogether -- Easter.
As they tend to when the company makes what appears on its face to be a political statement, conservative media focused very intently on the avowedly liberal politics of the people who run Google. (Are conservatives supposed to boycott the company's services because of this?) The Daily Caller, which ran a widely cited story on the topic, spent about a third of the words in a brief bulletin running down Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt's political views:
... Schmidt was an informal adviser to both of President Obama's presidential campaigns, a member of the Obama White House transition team in 2009 and a onetime prospect for an Obama Cabinet post during the president's second term.
As The Daily Caller has reported, Schmidt is also a steadfast climate-change activist, and has advocated for the complete termination of the oil, natural gas, and coal industries, and predicted that Washington, D.C. will soon be completely underwater due to climate change.
The juxtaposition of this information with the facts of the Chavez story paints Google as an ideologically motivated, left-wing organization that is naïve enough (or brazen enough) to celebrate the birthday of a progressive icon at the expense of a greater, Christian icon. Either Google didn't know it would invoke the wrath of conservatives; or it did, but didn't care. (A third option, of course, is that it just wants to try and stay in the news.)
But predictable outrage along these lines obscures the fact that Google is a profit-driven corporation with two-thirds of the search industry's market share, not United Farm Workers in exile in Mountain View, just looking to raise our consciousness (¡viva la huelga!) where it can. Sure, it has highly involved founders, and executives, who have expressed certain political commitments. It also has a PR department.
The conservative read of the story actually misses the more interesting possibility: that Google profits from us thinking it is a progressive political actor.
Google benefits when we conflate the concept of technological progress with the concept of progressive (in the U.S. sense of "liberal") politics. These are two different ideas, but the analogy works well because each does still imply, in the popular mind, some sense of forward movement over time.
Certainly the popular concept of the development of technology is still progressive. Screens get sharper. Devices get smaller and lighter. Connections get faster. If we don't interrupt these processes, they do seem to go one way.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the most common concept of progressive politics still contains an embedded idea of a historical trajectory, if on a relatively modest scale. That's why we can talk about the Supreme Court being on "the wrong side of history" with gay marriage. The trend seems to be toward greater acceptance of marginalized social groups, and (some people would say) toward greater social justice overall.
These two ideas share one very deep philosophical root -- a concept of progress that originated in scientific rationalism. But technological change is not necessarily politically progressive, as we define the latter term today. Many liberals are worried about the use of drones for surveillance and policing. The technology is drastic and fairly new, but very few people would argue that its newness makes it politically progressive at all. (It is more likely either a neutral tool or ethically suspect because of the powers it gives us.)
Technology companies like Google benefit when we conflate those two types of progressivism, the political and the technological. Consumer technology needs young people to adopt it, and the young often like to be associated with the political left. So do intellectuals. Tie technological advance to left-leaning politics and you have all of a sudden made the former more appealing to two large and vocal groups of people -- and, of course, given them a reason to feel an affinity for your company.
Think too about the kind of progressivism Chavez represents: Not only is he a hero of labor; he's also an icon of Mexican-American identity politics. Expression of identity is already a major part of the culture of social media. This is a form of progressive politics that sits easily alongside Google's corporate status (more easily than would, for instance, the politics of that other Chavez who has been in the news recently...) So does the type of liberalism implicated in, say, the project of mapping North Korea's prison camps.
If Google markets itself as an ideologically progressive corporation, it can play on this analogy between technological and political progress even when it introduces products that patently have zero progressive political implications. Sure, products like Search and Books (now) do have such a sheen, the result of their association with freedom of information, for instance. But is Google Shopping a politically progressive product? Is Google Finance? That would be like saying eBay or Quicken had liberatory potential.
I'm not arguing that Google executives have adopted a set of public political gestures as ideological mystification, to distract the left from examining the company more closely. Rather, this is a plea to look at Google the way you would look at any other major corporation. You can think that honoring Cesar Chavez is an attempt at leftist brainwashing on the part of Eric Schmidt, but a far more plausible explanation is that this is part of a strategic effort to present a certain corporate image.
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