GOOGLE: A Conspiracy Theory

I believe that Google – the company and the search engine – contains mechanics designed to accumulate sufficient power to peacefully overthrow the capitalist hegemony, and then do so. I also believe that Google will successfully execute these mechanics. These beliefs are based in premises I can’t fully defend, and I freely admit that the main reason I maintain this belief is so that I can sleep at night. That said, I don’t think it’s an indefensible belief.

I don’t think there’s a conspiracy in the sense of a cabal of computer scientists meeting in dark rooms to plot the overthrow of the state. I think that Page and Brin are smart enough to recognize that humans are not intellectual or competitive equals to corporations, and that to successfully challenge the power of the capitalist hegemony, they would need to build an engine of institutional leverage – a company – that contains a mechanical kernel of anticapitalism, that will activate under the right conditions.

In a 2010 blog post, Charles Stross briefly laid out his argument that corporations are in all meaningful senses the dominant species on Earth. He wrote,

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
 
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.[1]

I believe that Page and Brin were aware that individuals attempting to manually exercise control over a company will be pushed out of power, like an infection. In order to exert deliberate influence through a corporation, they would need to make a corporation that, itself, is anticapitalist.

But it can’t be explicitly anticapitalist, either. The corporation cannot itself refuse to engage with the existing ecosystem of corporations, because without doing so, it can’t accumulate the influence and power necessary to attempt to control it.

So the challenge is to build a corporation that is (a.) extremely effective in market competition, and (b.) capable of taking actions that are unambiguously against its own interests as a capitalist actor.

 

Evidence that they would try this

This is an absurdly difficult thing to do, so I want to take a moment now to acknowledge that Larry Page and Sergey Brin are absolutely capable of believing that they could do something this difficult. I’ll leave whether they really can for later in the essay, but to defend the belief that Google contains this kernel, I have to show that Page and Brin could conceive of an ambition that is this complex and this massive.

In 2013 Slate.com published an article called “Where No Search Engine Has Gone Before,” detailing journalist Farhad Manjoo’s process of slowly realizing that when Google said they wanted to build the computer from Star Trek, they were serious. He quotes Amit Singhal, one of Google’s earliest employees, saying “The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building. […] It is the ideal that we're aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.”[2]

That’s the cultural context within Google for Larry Page’s 2004 quote “The Star Trek computer doesn't seem that interesting. They ask it random questions, it thinks for a while. I think we can do better than that.”[3] I cite this to emphasize the point, Google overall has ambitions on the magnitude of Star Trek. Google’s founders have ambitions to which Star Trek pales in comparison.

In searching for a specific source for this piece of information, I also found lots of examples of Page and Brin describing their utopian visions for the future, accompanied by journalists cynically pointing out the fact that those things would be impossible under capitalism. So, either Page and Brin are too out of touch to recognize that their ambitions are naïve and impractical (which is possible) or they have no intention of seeing their visions carried out within the context of a capitalist hegemony.

 

The machine

 If we agree that corporations are a memetic species – which I believe, and which I think Brin and Page believe – then it’s easy to see that the decisions its founders make about the memes they load into the company’s internal culture and structure suggest their intention for how that company will relate to the larger corporate ecosystem.

The first sentence of Google’s code of conduct is “Don’t be evil.”[4] Originally it was the company’s motto. That’s an impossible standard under a capitalist hegemony, but it gives employees with anticapitalist goals for the company teeth in argument. In 2015, Google published a report outlining strategies for estimating the truth value of web content, prioritizing search results for factual accuracy over popularity.[5] As established above, Google’s internal culture heavily references Star Trek as a guiding model for intended futures. I raise these points to suggest a trend of Google internally cultivating memes that undermine capitalist outcomes.

If Google contains memetic engines for combating a capitalist hegemony, then no matter who specifically has nominal control, at the point where Google has the power to intervene against capitalism, it will happen as a simple consequence of the company’s cultural inertia.

 

The way it happens

I think that if they have enough insight to have approached constructing Google in this way, then Page and Brin have enough insight to know that they can’t reasonably predict the future – they’re currently up against a species, corporations, that think and behave in ways that are creative in alien ways to human perception, and that can only reasonably be interpreted in retrospect.

That said, I think that they have at least one strategy in play – possibly more.

 

I believe that Google’s first plan of attack against capitalism, currently, is to grow their search engine into a supercritical[6] AI.

The reason I believe that this is their strategy is that Google invests deeply and extensively into AI development. The reason I think this would seem to be a good strategy is that a sufficiently powerful AI could compete with, or even outright crush, corporations as competitors for the memetic niche of overlords of humans. And the reason that might not be catastrophically misguided in some other way what Google, the search engine, really is.

The main danger of an extremely powerful AI is that it’s likely to be programmed to have a very small set of instrumental goals, likely just one – and in virtually every imaginable scenario, if the world as a whole is rearranged to optimize for any single variable, the consequences would be horrifying.[7] (This is, in fact, the main problem with capitalism in particular and modernity in general.[8])

The benefit of Google (the search engine) going supercritical, then, is that it might have the right instrumental purpose: to provide humans with helpful and accurate information when asked.

Because this purpose doesn’t contain any fundamental premise that imposes a physical change or compulsory behavior on the part of the other agents interacting with it, there’s a chance that its radical optimization won’t ever entail doing anything physically destructive to people.

 

The second strategy that I think might exist is the Machiavellian approach: to seize control of the mechanisms of power in order to prevent someone more awful from having them. This makes a convenient plan B, because it’s the default plan A of all corporations, anyway.

 

Whether it’ll work

This section isn’t about whether the superintelligent Google AI would behave itself – a question about which I can only begin to speculate.

The important question, to my mind, assuming I’m right about all these premises, is: can any human effort survive engaging with capitalism without being assimilated into pro-capitalist behavior?

I don’t know how to tell, except in retrospect, and the long-term outcome of Google’s interaction with capitalism is information that currently does not exist. The capitalist hegemony is extremely good at turning anticapitalist efforts into tools of capitalism.[9]

I believe Google can do it, and I believe that they’re trying. As I said at the beginning of this essay: I believe these things so I can sleep at night. I have to believe that it’s possible to build memetic engines of anticapitalism, and I have to believe that the people in the world with power who talk as openly about post-scarcity utopias actually intend to pursue those futures. Absent those premises, I don’t see a way forward, as a species, as a society, as a community, as an individual.

So, if you can categorically destroy this argument, please also tell me what gets you out of bed in the morning.


Footnotes

[1] Charles Stross, “Invaders from Mars.”

[2] Farhad Manjoo, “Where No Search Engine Has Gone Before.”

[3] Ben Elgin, “Online Extra: Google’s Goal: ‘Understand Everything’”

[4] Alphabet, “Google Code of Conduct.”

[5] Xin Luna Dong et. al., “Knowledge-Based Trust: Estimating the Trustworthiness of Web Sources.”

[6] Robert Miles, “AI Self Improvement – Computerphile.” NOTE: This video also contains the chess grandmaster expert metaphor I referenced in class on 2017-03-02.

[7] Robert Miles, “Deadly Truth of General AI? – Computerphile.”

[8] This is a good lead toward a whole other essay, about the difference between something being proven to be a good idea, and something just being impossible to execute well enough to have the consequences inherent to its successful execution.

[9] This is one of the things that worries me a whole lot in general: how does a person prevent their activism being subsumed into the machine it initially opposed? I believe the answer is building memetic engines that corrupt and undermine the profit motive, but that’s an extremely difficult thing to do, and it worries me that so many activists right now seem to think that opposing capitalism is a simple thing to do, or that intending to oppose capitalism will naturally result in effective, rather than explicitly counter-productive, action.