If the company that falters is Google, it won’t be because it didn’t see the future coming. Of Schmidt’s four technology juggernauts, Google has always been the most ambitious, and the most committed to getting everything possible onto the internet, its mission being ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. Its ubiquitous search box has changed the way information can be got at to such an extent that ten years after most people first learned of its existence you wouldn’t think of trying to find out anything without typing it into Google first. Searching on Google is automatic, a reflex, just part of what we do. But an insufficiently thought-about fact is that in order to organise the world’s information Google first has to get hold of the stuff. And in the long run ‘the world’s information’ means much more than anyone would ever have imagined it could. It means, of course, the totality of the information contained on the World Wide Web, or the contents of more than a trillion webpages (it was a trillion at the last count, in 2008; now, such a number would be meaningless). But that much goes without saying, since indexing and ranking webpages is where Google began when it got going as a research project at Stanford in 1996, just five years after the web itself was invented. It means – or would mean, if lawyers let Google have its way – the complete contents of every one of the more than 33 million books in the Library of Congress or, if you include slightly varying editions and pamphlets and other ephemera, the contents of the approximately 129,864,880 books published in every recorded language since printing was invented. It means every video uploaded to the public internet, a quantity – if you take the Google-owned YouTube alone – that is increasing at the rate of nearly an hour of video every second.
It means the location of businesses, religious institutions, schools, libraries, community centres and hospitals worldwide – a global Yellow Pages. It means the inventories of shops, the archives of newspapers, the minute by minute performance of the stock market. It means, or will mean, if Google keeps going, the exact look of every street corner and roadside on the planet, photographed in high resolution and kept as up to date as possible: the logic, if not yet the practice, of Google Street View, means that city streets should be under ever more regular photographic surveillance, since the fresher and more complete the imagery the more useful people will find it, and the more they will therefore use it. If it doesn’t already have a piece of data, you can be sure that Google is pursuing a way of getting it, of gathering and sorting every kind of public information there is.
But all this is just the stuff that Google makes publicly searchable, or ‘universally accessible’. It’s only a small fraction of the information it actually possesses. I know that Google knows, because I’ve looked it up, that on 30 April 2011 at 4.33 p.m. I was at Willesden Junction station, travelling west. It knows where I was, as it knows where I am now, because like many millions of others I have an Android-powered smartphone with Google’s location service turned on. If you use the full range of its products, Google knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging and phone, with a master list – accessible only by you, and by Google – of the people you contact most. If you use its products, Google knows the content of your emails and voicemail messages (a feature of Google Voice is that it transcribes messages and emails them to you, storing the text on Google servers indefinitely). If you find Google products compelling – and their promise of access-anywhere, conflagration and laptop-theft-proof document creation makes them quite compelling – Google knows the content of every document you write or spreadsheet you fiddle or presentation you construct. If as many Google-enabled robotic devices get installed as Google hopes, Google may soon know the contents of your fridge, your heart rate when you’re exercising, the weather outside your front door, the pattern of electricity use in your home.
Google knows or has sought to know, and may increasingly seek to know, your credit card numbers, your purchasing history, your date of birth, your medical history, your reading habits, your taste in music, your interest or otherwise (thanks to your searching habits) in the First Intifada or the career of Audrey Hepburn or flights to Mexico or interest-free loans, or whatever you idly speculate about at 3.45 on a Wednesday afternoon. Here’s something: if you have an Android phone, Google can guess your home address, since that’s where your phone tends to be at night. I don’t mean that in theory some rogue Google employee could hack into your phone to find out where you sleep; I mean that Google, as a system, explicitly deduces where you live and openly logs it as ‘home address’ in its location service, to put beside the ‘work address’ where you spend the majority of your daytime hours.
Some people find all this frightening. Since Google still makes more than 95 per cent of its money through selling advertising – that’s $30 billion a year, or about twice the annual global revenue of the entire recorded music industry – the fear is that all the information about us it has hoovered up is used to create scarily exact user profiles which it then offers to advertisers, as the most complete picture of billions of individuals it’s currently possible to build. The fear seems be based on the assumption that if Google is gathering all this information then it must be doing so in order to sell it: it is a profit-making company, after all. ‘We are not Google’s customers,’ Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in The Googlisation of Everything. ‘We are its product. We – our fancies, fetishes, predilections and preferences – are what Google sells to advertisers.’ Vaidhyanathan, who likes alliteration but isn’t so big on facts, doesn’t explain what he means by ‘sells’ (or whether ‘to sell a fancy’ could mean anything at all), but if he’s implying that Google makes the information it has about us available to advertisers then he’s wrong. It isn’t possible, using Google’s tools, to target an ad to 32-year-old single heterosexual men living in London who work at Goldman Sachs and like skiing, especially at Courchevel. You can do exactly that using Facebook, but the options Google gives advertisers are, by comparison, limited: the closest it gets is to allow them to target display ads to people who may be interested in the category of ‘skiing and snowboarding’ – and advertisers were always able to do that anyway by buying space in Ski & Snowboard magazine. The rest of the time, Google decides the placement of ads itself, using its proprietary algorithms to display them wherever it knows they will get the most clicks. The advertisers are left out of the loop…
October 21, 2011
October 21, 2011
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has set alarms ringing with his efforts to create a global anti-American coalition.
When Muammar al-Qaddafi faced worldwide condemnation this past winter as he brutally struck back against a popular uprising, the Libyan dictator may have taken comfort from knowing he had at least one friend left: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The two have forged close political and economic ties during Chávez’s dozen years in office, and the Libyan leader had already bestowed the Qaddafi International Human Rights Prize on his Latin American ally and named a soccer stadium in Benghazi in his honor. In February, Chávez repaid the favors by offering to mediate a peaceful solution to the fighting—at a time when the rebels seemed likely to triumph—and defending his old friend on Twitter: “Teach another lesson to the extreme right-wing little Yanquis! Long live Libya and its independence!”
Chávez’s quixotic intervention was only the latest of his efforts to play a role in world affairs larger than most leaders of a midsize Latin American country might hope for. But Chávez has emerged at a fertile moment in world history. The apparent waning of U.S. power has opened up the possibility of a new geopolitical order, and the worldwide financial crisis and the rise of China have shaken the conventional wisdom that capitalism and democracy are superior to the alternatives.
Chávez has seized the moment by forcefully declaring his intention to change the world. “What we now have to do is define the future of the world. Dawn is breaking out all over. You can see it in Africa and Europe and Latin America and Oceania,” he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2006. “I want to emphasize that optimistic vision. We have to strengthen ourselves, our will to do battle, our awareness. We have to build a new and better world.”
Of course, that speech is better remembered for Chávez’s characterization of President George W. Bush as the “devil,” and his claim that the General Assembly chamber, where Bush had spoken the day before, still smelled of sulphur—only the most legendary example of Chávez’s frequent and colorful denunciations of the United States.
Chávez’s torrid rhetoric has earned him both admiration—in a 2009 opinion poll of several Arab countries, Chávez was the most popular leader, by a large margin—and fear. And he has backed up his anti-American rhetoric by courting nearly any country that challenges the United States, including Iran, Russia, China, Belarus, Libya, and Syria.
Under Chávez, Venezuela has spent billions on Russian rifles, fighter jets, and other weapons, and it recently won Moscow’s help in developing civilian nuclear power. Chávez has threatened to stop selling oil to the United States—the customer for more than half of Venezuela’s output—and ship it to China instead.
It is the relationship with Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that makes Chávez most effusive and worries Washington most. Chávez has hailed the Iranian leader as a “brother” and as a “gladiator in the anti-imperialist struggle.” Publicly, their two countries have collaborated to build joint banks, as well as car, tractor, and bicycle factories, in Venezuela. But much of the relationship is not transparent, and there has been a great deal of heated speculation (though little hard evidence) that Venezuela has offered to host Iranian missiles on its territory and is cooperating with Russia and Iran on nuclear weapons development. Some say that the banks are being used to evade international sanctions imposed on Iran.
Chávez has also been accused of supporting FARC guerrillas in neighboring Colombia and Hezbollah terrorists in the Middle East. In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department formally accused a Venezuelan diplomat who had served in Lebanon and Syria of acting as a fundraiser for Hezbollah, and froze his U.S.-based assets. Last year, a Spanish judge charged a Venezuelan official with terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder based on evidence that he had helped coordinate training sessions involving operatives from FARC and ETA, the Basque separatist organization known for its bombings and assassinations.
Meanwhile, Chávez has been creating an alliance of like-minded neighbors in Latin America, which are also building their own ties with Russia and Iran. “Today Venezuela is accompanied by true friends,” Chávez said in 2009. “They range from large countries like China, Russia, and Iran, to smaller countries in size but big in solidarity, like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia, among others.” Nicaragua and Ecuador are also on the list of friends.
In Washington and other capitals, there is much speculation about what Chávez really intends to do with these new alliances. Are his foreign-policy moves, as he claims, the first steps in creating a post-capitalist world order independent of the United States and oriented toward justice rather than corporate profit? Or do they have the makings of a Cold War reprise, leading us toward bloc-on-bloc geopolitical struggle (complete with the potential for a rerun of the Cuban Missile Crisis)? Or are they neither, amounting to little more than self-aggrandizing speeches and photo ops?…
October 21, 2011
This spring, the billionaire Eric Schmidt announced that there were only four really significant technology companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, the company he had until recently been running. People believed him. What distinguished his new ‘gang of four’ from the generation it had superseded – companies like Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Cisco, which mostly exist to sell gizmos and gadgets and innumerable hours of expensive support services to corporate clients – was that the newcomers sold their products and services to ordinary people. Since there are more ordinary people in the world than there are businesses, and since there’s nothing that ordinary people don’t want or need, or can’t be persuaded they want or need when it flashes up alluringly on their screens, the money to be made from them is virtually limitless. Together, Schmidt’s four companies are worth more than half a trillion dollars. The technology sector isn’t as big as, say, oil, but it’s growing, as more and more traditional industries – advertising, travel, real estate, used cars, new cars, porn, television, film, music, publishing, news – are subsumed into the digital economy. Schmidt, who as the ex-CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation had learned to take the long view, warned that not all four of his disruptive gang could survive. So – as they all converge from their various beginnings to compete in the same area, the place usually referred to as ‘the cloud’, a place where everything that matters is online – the question is: who will be the first to blink?
October 21, 2011
If you could travel back in time, what would be your destination?
Making his own choice of the best time to have been alive, Edward Gibbon, author of “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776-89), didn’t have much doubt. “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” This was the second century AD, when Rome’s “five good emperors”, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, brought a peace and stability that western Europe would—in Gibbon’s view—never see again. But maybe it was an easier question then. Gibbon was white, smart and male. He could walk from the right end of one hierarchical society into another without a tremor. Nor was he sacrificing much technology to do so. Barring gunpowder and the printing press, his world and Hadrian’s were close enough to let Gibbon swap breeches for a toga and barely notice the difference.
For us, the question needs a little more thought. Anyone who dislikes pain, prefers their operations under anaesthetic, and has no wish to die of smallpox, might well choose to live now. We can balance that by awarding ourselves perpetual good health, but it’s harder to level the playing field when it comes to gender. Not many modern women, however frustrated with their lot, would choose to go back to long skirts, tight corsets and a general assumption that they are stupid. The same may apply to any European who isn’t white, and to anyone in the less affluent three-quarters of society. My children once went on a school trip to Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington’s home. I thought they were going to learn about lords; instead they were taught what it was like being a servant. Transport most of us to ancient Rome and we’ll find ourselves in a poorhouse or slave barracks. To give our question a chance, we have to assume that we can do our time travel, if not first-class, then in premium economy, switching genders if we feel like it, to land somewhere moderately comfortable.
This isn’t a question about technology, where the present will always trump the past. It’s about lifestyle and ideas, people and manners, things that ebb and flow. Armed with a passport to the good life in a time and place of our choice, not many will pass on the journey. Culture-vultures will book their seats in Shakespeare’s Globe in 1599 or the Cotton Club, Harlem, in the 1920s. Hero-worshippers will queue up to watch Michelangelo chisel stone in 1501 or Genghis Khan ride into battle in 1206. Epicures, the most prudent time-travellers, will follow Gibbon to Rome, or time their birth to dodge a call-up for the world wars and surf the Pax Americana.
Peace and stability are all very well, but several of mankind’s giant leaps have come in times of war. Democracy got going, and conversation buzzed, in Athens in the fifth century BC, with the Peloponnesian war raging outside. I’d brave the 16th-century Wars of Religion to catch the Reformation, or the Thirty Years War (1618-48) to watch the Enlightenment dawn. What I’m after is a sense of possibility. There’s a striking moment at the start of Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian War” when he surveys Greek history up to then. The striking part is, it only lasts a couple of pages. History is still on Series One. And maybe that sense of freshness is why the present doesn’t hold all the cards. Our own excitement in the rich, free West seems to have leaked away. A third of us can’t be bothered to use the votes Libyans are dying for. We have freed slaves, empowered women, shaken off tyrants. We should be living happily ever after, yet we’re not. Reason enough to tack against time and find a place where the future hasn’t gone stale.
It’s tempting to go by what you might witness—Socrates arguing with Plato in Athens, their contemporary Confucius riding through China, or Julius Caesar tangling with Cicero in 50BC Rome. But that would just be time tourism.
The Byzantine empire at its height would be hard to beat for other-worldly glitter, but the power of church and emperor rules it out. Knights on horseback put the Middle Ages out of bounds as far as I’m concerned. Of all the Renaissance states, Vicenza in the 16th century stands out, with Palladio to build you a villa and a chance to studio-crawl round some of the Venetian artists who fill our museums today. Amsterdam in the golden age of the 17th century also comes close, but that’s putting a lot of weight on culture, and we need something broader. The French ancien régime is almost appealing enough to mute my objection to absolute monarchs. Talleyrand, the sly politician who grew up under it and survived the twists and turns of its demise, maintained that “anyone who hasn’t lived in the 18th century before the revolution does not know the sweetness of living.”
Part of the challenge is that we’re not just looking for a single charismatic moment. Places exist in time. What have the old people seen? What’s in store for the children? We’re looking for a turning point, a place living through changes whose effects are with us still. Which brings us to London in the 1690s, just after the Glorious Revolution that drove James II from his throne in a coup led by Prince William of Orange…