Blown To Bits

Vaidhyanathan on China

Thursday, January 14th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the forthcoming book The Googlization of Everything, has posted on his blog what seems to be the entire text of one chapter, about Google in China. So it was frozen well before Google’s decision to stop censoring and perhaps abandon ship. It is a nuanced, balanced argument, with some compelling detail. He notes that censorship is not as simple as the “great firewall” metaphor would suggest, and that absolutist no-business-with-oppressive-regimes postures are not actually productive. Siva replays the debate in which he, I, and Esther Dyson participated, with an honest assessment of the two sides of the argument.

During that debate on National Public Radio in November 2008, Harvard computer science professor Harry Lewis accused Google of violating its “Don’t be Evil” motto by creating along the very lines that the Chinese government demanded. “Their choice was, to accept the Chinese ultimatum or to go home. They could have gone home but they didn’t. They stated and built the engine as the Chinese wanted it.” Lewis concluded, “Google didn’t choose the lesser of two evils when faced with the Chinese ultimatum. It chose the more profitable of the two evils.” Now, Lewis was making a debater’s point because, well, this was a debate. The question before the two panels was not whether Google on balance does more bad than good or good than bad. It was whether Google lived up to its motto. The Chinese deal gives Google critics – and my debating team – an easy shot. Perhaps it’s a cheap shot. But that is what debating is all about.

Esther Dyson responded to Lewis. Dyson is known as one of the central visionaries of the information age. She has been present at the creation of many of the most important initiatives of the Internet, including the gestation of several search engines. She is one of the brightest and most influential thinkers about digital technologies and their effects on the world. Dyson understandably believes in the transformative, perhaps revolutionary, power of information technology. “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power, it sucks power out of the center, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over people, while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives. Google is part of that. It’s one of these things that shines light on everything, it enables people to find stuff out, it enables them to question what their governments are doing, and it’s absolutely wonderful,” Dyson told the debate crowd in New York City. “Google by its very presence and its operation, even if it’s incomplete, creates increasing expectations for transparency, it starts people answering questions. It gets them to expect to be able to find out stuff.”

As I wrote in Chapter 1, I was sitting at the opposite table to Dyson. I was on Harry Lewis’ side of this constructed event. If the question at hand was whether Google violated its motto, I have to come down on Lewis’ side, as I was in fact on Lewis’ side. But in the real world, debates like this don’t matter much. To the people of China, Google’s fidelity to its motto doesn’t make a bit of difference. In the real world, Dyson has a much stronger point. Google might raise expectations. Google might spark some young person in China to ask one more question about why she can’t read this or watch that. Some Google is probably a little better for China than no Google.

You can listen to the debate here. The front page includes a nice picture of Siva and me, ecstatic (and a bit surprised) at the moment the audience declared our team the winner.

So it is time for me to fess up. Siva’s description and assessment are accurate. In fact, when I was invited to participate in the event, I said I could argue either side. They wanted me on the pro side, which was fine with me—as Siva says, in the rhetoric of a debate, it’s the easier argument about which to wax oratorical. But the argument requires a great deal of subtlety, and Siva’s chapter gives the nuanced view.

He doesn’t say how he would revise it now that Google seems to have gotten fed up with Chinese shenanigans …

Comments are closed.