Google, China and my ‘I told you so’ moment

Picture by Jeff Sowrey

The political effect – as well as the effect upon brands – of socialised media has been a source of constant fascination for me over the course of the past 18 months. I’ve pasted below an excerpt from a post I published last July that alluded to the topic.

The post’s content is relevant because, today, Google has delivered an absolute blinder of a case study, the consequences of which may be pored over by generations to come.

By declaring that it will no longer censor search results Google (a ‘virtual’ state) and China (a ‘nation’ state) are at loggerheads over territorial encroachment.

If you read Google’s statement, just note its tone.

This isn’t a brand speaking; it’s a supra-national organisation that is leveraging its power to make a diplomatic point by rapping the civil liberty and political conduct knuckles of a global military and economic superpower.

Despite the fact that Google is dwarfed by the perceived scale and power of the Chinese state, that doesn’t prevent it from trying out its developing diplomatic muscles, and nor does it lessen its chances of bringing its diplomatic influence to bear. (After all, the United Kingdom has been disproportionately influential in global diplomacy for generations despite it being a small island without an empire as pervasive as Google’s.)

That’s the point I made in my original post excerpt; and that’s the the significance of Google’s move today. ‘States’ are ‘imagined communities’ with populations. In China’s case, it is inhabitants of a physical area; in Google’s it is users – and not ‘consumers’ – in an imagined space. What’s more, Google’s population of users is likely to be considerably higher than China’s.

Naturally, Google will benefit from the backing of world governments over its stance, but it won’t be represented by them.

That is because Google’s currency is realisable knowledge which transcends national boundaries in a way that physical branded products simply cannot. So, while Google may have been founded in the United States, its cultural roots and population is worldwide. If Coca Cola made a similar stand, it just wouldn’t muster a fraction of the global gasp that Google’s announcement has caused.

Here’s what I wrote back in July:

What’s really going on: The new socialism

What’s really happening, though, is fascinating and takes me back to one of the few books I read at university which struck me as interesting.

It was called ‘Imagined Communities’ by a guy called Benedict Anderson. It was about political nationalism, but his thesis still stands today – in fact, it’s probably more pertinent – because he suggested that the media (print) had been the primary dynamic enabling the concept of ‘nations’ to thrive. It follows that, if the media becomes fragmented but easily accessible to most people, then there’s a corresponding fragmentation and proliferation of ‘imagined communities’.

It’s why nations like China are paranoid about the power of Google to spread ideas that have the potential to create dissonance between compli­ance to the state and pursuit of personal ambition – Uighurs/Han Chinese unrest may be an early indication of this.

It’s also why sects do weird things – because their imagined community transcends the consensual imagined community of most of the people around them.

Your imagined community shifts and changes throughout the day, depending on context. So you might be part of a work-based community right now, or a member of a profession this afternoon, a commuter at the end of the day, an actor in amateur theatre tonight, a father, a sister or brother or friend. If you’re in the UK, its unlikely that you’ll be English or British, unless events take a remark able turn, but you may well be a towny, villager or seasider.

So what’s happening has been described by Kevin Kelly at Wired as a ‘new socialism’; technology is enabling people to realise the potential of social connections, of whichever hue, for all sorts of different reasons and outcomes.

So we’re living through an ism, but it’s not ideological; it’s sociological.

And I think it’s brilliant because the desire to apply rational segmentation models to deeply unpredictable human beings is being challenged by the diversity and accessibility of media.

Here’s the original post (you”ll need to scroll down to see where the excerpt featured)

2 thoughts on “Google, China and my ‘I told you so’ moment

  1. You’re well behind the times — multinationals have been stateless for years. Their employees work wherever they please, regardless of visas, red tape and permits. They can work the system of any country to place an expatriate manager. I know, because for a short period I was one of those expats, where my health and wellbeing of my family was provided for by the corporation rather than the state of any country.

    I’m not saying this was a bad thing — when someone hands you a wodge of cash at the airport to help defray costs of setting up home in a new country, it’s hard to argue. International healthcare? All part of the package. Google is hardly the poster child for this — it got all this 11 years before it was founded.

    What’s amazing to me here is Google’s naivete. When you sleep on a bed of greenbacks, you tend to wake up thinking you can do anything. Screw over your former partners in the smart phone business? A Google engineering VP can explain it away in a press conference: “We never said we were building a phone” — no, just paying someone else to build one. As one exec in the US mobile phone business put it “Google has autistic relationships — they don’t know who they’re hurting, or why”. Same applies here: tweaking the tail of the Dragon without knowing or caring.

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    1. I disagree. I considered the parallels with multi-national operations, which is why I referred to Coca Cola. But it struck me that Google is not the same as a traditional multi-national for two reasons 1) Because it is a means of global communication and 2) It’s not taken this stand because it makes more money than it it did in 2006; it’s done it because it feels able to make this stand. That means it has reached a point where it considers itself sufficiently credible to challenge a sovereign state in which it operates and not defer – as a multi-national would. Regardless of how opportunistic Google may be – and the Iraq War tells us that naive opportunism isn’t confined to Google – their behaviour appears closer to statecraft than anything else. The closest parallel might be the behaviour of imperial trading companies, like the East India Company, who operated across national boundaries as an outpost of the British Empire – but even they were identifiable with a specific nation state. So what I’m really asking here is whether Google, given the way people use it as a means of communication, is an emerging form of State?

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