Self-Reflection on Technology

Idealism & Fighting Propaganda: Reflections on Google. Or Maybe: Self-Reflection?

Leaders of Tech Giants Influence Your Life

In a world where data is the most valuable resource, leaders of major companies in the ICT sector shape the future of people worldwide. Imagine for example that several years ago Google was faced with a choice: further develop Google Maps, or stop with this initiative. Today the service of Google Maps has become almost a necessity in the lives of so many people. And yet it might have been a decision of one person: continue with this initiative, or kill it? Considering such decisions about pervasive technologies demonstrates why it’s interesting to follow the thoughts of such tech giants’ leaders.

Who is Sundar Pichai?

In an interview with The New York Times, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, presented his thoughts about technology and technology companies in today’s world. I’d like to focus on a few of his messages. But first, it’s interesting to understand his background. Having grown up in simplicity in Chennai, India, where receiving a refrigerator was a big deal, Sundar Pichai by no means was born into richness. In fact, he says in the interview that during his university education in India he had worked on a computer maybe three or four times only. Why is this relevant? Because people are being shaped by their history, by their experiences.

Idealism

When asked about Google’s own evolution along the years (he joined the company in 2004), Sundar Pichai speaks about idealism as a core element that did not change within Google. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. A great mission, because every single person stands to benefit from it (given that everybody consumes information). It’s not about products, not about superior quality or best price. Neither is it about shareholder value. It’s about helping everybody navigate through the information explosion. This is a mission that employees can easily feel aligned with. And employee motivation is a key contributor to success. A mission that aims to advance society is a great mission to have.

“Big Brother” Fears

Google’s mission statement is also important when discussing concerns about “big brother” scenarios. Such campaigns address the fear sentiment among people. Now try to think about Google’s mission statement whenever you are faced with “Big Brother” fears. At the end of the day, we all have the choice whether or not to use Google services (or the services of other tech giants). And if we make the choice to use these services, it’s maybe because… Google succeeds in its mission, and we want to benefit from it.

Propaganda and Misinformation

The discussion about vetting online content provided a very interesting angle on freedom of speech. Google CEO pointed out that “the U.S. and Europe draw the line differently on this question in a very fundamental way”, and elaborates that “we’ve had to defend videos which we allow in the U.S. but in Europe, people view as disseminating hate speech”. You could say that this is feasible because Google knows where its users are located (at least, if they do not try to mask their location), and thus different rules can apply in different countries. But this is easier said than done.

Taking Responsibility vs. Giving Responsibility

The main point here is that the definition of “right” and “wrong” is not obvious, and thus can the responsibility be placed on the platform provider to always make a right choice, if there is no agreement in what’s right? Where does the responsibility of a platform provider start and end? Are we not dismissing our own responsibility (i.e. the responsibility of every individual, of society as a whole and of national Governments) by placing full data curation responsibility on a platform provider, in an age of information explosion? Before we demand a technology company to prevent any and all misinformation, let’s look at ourselves: can we actually define a clear border between “an opinion” and “misinformation”?

For me this discussion offers quite some thoughts for reflection.

Curious for more? Read the interview here.

Suggested Reading:

  1. Siri, Are We Responsible For Our Own Deeds? Reflections On The Technology Knowledge Gap
  2. “We’ve Never Been In The Data Business” Apple CEO Tim Cook. Really?

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Ziv Baida

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