Altruism vs. Google

by | Sep 24, 2011

Incredibly, there’s antitrust action going on against Google. Google, which gives away its expert services! Search engines, led by Google, have revolutionized our lives. I noted this phenomenon back in 2003. It’s only 8 years ago, but it seems like a different era, because what I was noting was the dawn of a new era, […]

Incredibly, there’s antitrust action going on against Google. Google, which gives away its expert services!

Search engines, led by Google, have revolutionized our lives. I noted this phenomenon back in 2003. It’s only 8 years ago, but it seems like a different era, because what I was noting was the dawn of a new era, an era of unlimited access to the world’s accumulated knowledge. Here’s the relevant part of my post from 2/3/2003.

What the automobile did for transportation the World Wide Web has done for information. The automobile opened up a vast range of motion to the average man; the web opens up the planet’s whole store of knowledge to him.

And both work their wonders by simply saving time. It isn’t that you couldn’t, pre-automobile, get to almost anywhere—it was just that it would take you a tremendous amount of time, discomfort, and expense. Likewise, it isn’t that, before the web, you couldn’t go to a library and dig out information, or make twenty long- distance telephone calls. It’s just that you can get the information maybe 10,000 times quicker on the web, at no cost.

And consequently, you are far more likely to go get information, which pre-web, was there but you’d never have bothered to get. In fact, it would have been irrational to spend the required time.

For instance, a couple of days ago, I mentioned to a friend that I thought a jonquil was the same thing as a daffodil. He went on the web and looked it up (turns out that a jonquil is a type of daffodil).

Or, what is the source of some quote that you recall a fragment of? Forget Bartlett’s Quotations, go to Google.com and type it in.

Or, what is the actual philosophic view of a writer you don’t know but who tells you he is practically an Objectivist? Go on the web and see what he has actually written or taught.

Want to know what’s on TV tonight, but don’t have TV Guide or equivalent? Go to www.tvguide.com.

The examples are endless. In fact, there’s probably a website out there somewhere devoted to listing such examples.

To take advantage of the automobile, you had to own a car (or live in a city like New York where taxis are always cruising). It would not be enough to live near a friend who’d let you borrow his car, for free or for a nominal charge. In the same way, to take advantage of the web, you have to have an always-on, broadband connection. And don’t turn your computer off. Otherwise, you won’t go to the web for the little things—the daffodil or TV Guide questions—that make it so very useful.

Yes, you can leave your computer running all the time—it doesn’t make any material difference to its lifespan (some even argue that leaving it on is better than stopping and starting it—I’m sure you can find this debated on the web).

And, no, you don’t need a screen-saver anymore—that was in the 1980s. Just leave it on with your browser on Google (I make Google my browser’s home page). That way, the next time you catch yourself thinking, I wonder … you can just type in a reasonable string of search characters and wonder no more.

A caveat: there is, of course, mis-information as well as information on the web. I always evaluate the reliability of the source—am I looking at the site of the biology department at Harvard or the home page of PeskyMaiden at AOL?

Now for the moral message. The web is the combined result of millions of free individuals and profit-seeking businesses, each acting independently on their own initiative. Yes, there are government agency sites as well, but I virtually never go to them. Imagine, for one brief, horrible moment, that the web had been planned and executed by the government. There would now be maybe 200 arcane, almost unusable sites—and they would be visited about as much as public libraries are, if that much.

The web is a monument to the benevolence of individuals with strong personal values, who want to make their resources available to the world and a monument to the benevolence of the profit motive which induces businesses to give away so much free information, knowing that it will create more revenues in the long- run.

The internet was created decades ago by the Defense Department, but the web is the product of private individuals and private businesses acting in their self-interest. It could not have been a product of any government plan—not even Al Gore’s. It could not have succeeded without the technological base provided by the profit-seeking computer hardware and software industries.

What is Google’s crime? Google is accused of dominance—in enriching our lives at no charge.

Here’s the whole ugly story in one sentence, a sentence from a news story in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

Because it controls the great majority of searches, Google can steer users toward its own services at the expense of rivals, potentially starving them of vital internet traffic, competitors say.

Look at the shocking misuse of concepts.

1. control. Google doesn’t control searches, it provides them. It controls the method—how the searches get their results—but it’s you, the user, who decides to go to Google rather than Yahoo, or whatever. So Google controls the nature of the gift it gives you. Just as you control the nature of the gift you give your Mother on Mother’s day. Should the gift recipient control what the giver offers? That would mean it’s not a gift but a return of another’s property. If you can order me to give you something, either it was yours all along or I am your slave. What the use of control means here is that the minds of the men at Google belong to society. Theirs is not to reason why; theirs is but to do and die.

2. steer. Cars are steered. People choose. The reporter might have said, Google can slant its results. (There’s no evidence that Google does—that’s just an arbitrary, and unjust, claim, but at least it doesn’t imply psychological determinism.) But using slant might have been too embarrassing a term for a newspaper to use. Under Rupert Murdoch, the Journal has been improving, but traditionally its news reporting was as red as they come in this country. Until recently, the NY Times was noticeably less leftward slanting in news reporting than the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, all the monetary incentives are on the side of Google not slanting. Giving searchers results that are less than optimal would be a formula for Google’s destruction. Newspapers, like the Journal, could stay slanted as long as there was no easy way to check their results. (And the Journal had the best coverage of raw business and stock market data, so it was irreplaceable in the old days.) With search engines users can check the desirability of the hits produced by searches at the click of a mouse.

3. expense. If Google were to, self-destructively, bias its results, it would not be at the expense of anyone. No company has a right to sales. Nor does it suffer a cost when someone goes elsewhere. The absence of a sale is an absence, not a charge. Not being given a value is not the same as having a value taken away.

4. potentially. In other words, this horrible specter—people not being told where the very best deals are—is in the realm of the might be, could be, maybe may be. If Google were to feature its own services more than those of competitors (which is, by the way, the whole purpose of advertising), would that be a crime against humanity? Would that justify shackling or dismembering Google? Here’s the equivalent: You are potentially a lawbreaker, so you’re under arrest. The use of potentially here is a tacit admission that the enemies of Google have no evidence to back up their charges of bias. Their charges are arbitrary. A rational man dismisses the arbitrary without consideration.

5. starving. Here we find the worst of the repeated equivocations between not helping and harming—i.e., between nothing and something. By this perversion of logic, every time a company puts a commercial on TV, paying for your free program, they are starving their competitors. To extend the reporter’s metaphor, Google is giving away free food; but potentially the food could be selected from restaurants that have ties with Google, motivating people to patronize them, to Google’s benefit. Maybe the food is wrapped in ads for these restaurants. This, we are to believe, is killing rival restaurants. Such a potential advertisement is so horrible to imagine that we have to stop Google from giving us free food.

6. competitors say. This is not a misused concept, but it reveals what’s really going on here. Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, nailed it:

Mr. Schmidt said not every website can come out on top, and Google has to put users’ interests first. There are definitely complaints from businesses who want to be first in rankings even when they’re not the best match [for the search], he said.

And, as evidence of the improvement at the Journal, there’s this paragraph:

But some legal observers said that rivals have so far failed to establish that Google has harmed competition rather than just competitors.

The attack on Google is the reductio ad absurdum of antitrust law. Instead of fighting monopoly pricing (itself an invalid concept) involving restricted supply, antitrust has degenerated into fighting the provision of an invaluable service given away in unlimited quantity for free.

What can explain this illogic? The corrupt moral code of altruism. Under altruism, the justification of an individual’s or a company’s existence is selfless service to others. Google, it turns out, is profiting by giving away search services. That stains its activities with the sin of selfishness.

As the assault on Google shows, the real goal of altruism is not the betterment of the recipient of sacrifices but the suffering of the giver. We are all immeasurably better off due to Google. But Google is prospering, not suffering, and that cannot be countenanced.

It matters nothing to altruists that Google-users are being benefited. The only thing that matters is that Google is profiting. That’s what must be stopped, they hold. The government’s gun must be aimed at anyone who is not suffering. The fact that this would choke off the gusher of free benefits to everyone is of no moment. The fact that Google rose to dominance by virtue of the free choices of web users is of no moment. Google is big and successful—end of story.

Altruism means self-sacrifice. The whole of Atlas Shrugged is the dramatization of that fact, and of its meaning and consequences. But this paragraph from Galt’s speech best captures why Google is under attack.

A sacrifice is the surrender of a value. Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values. If you wish to achieve full virtue, you must seek no gratitude in return for your sacrifice, no praise, no love, no admiration, no self-esteem, not even the pride of being virtuous; the faintest trace of any gain dilutes your virtue. If you pursue a course of action that does not taint your life by any joy, that brings you no value in matter, no value in spirit, no gain, no profit, no reward—if you achieve this state of total zero, you have achieved the ideal of moral perfection.

The government trust-busters mean to remedy Google’s moral imperfection.

Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is an professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation and is the creator of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Dr. Binswanger blogs at HBLetter.com (HBL)--an email list for Objectivists for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. A free trial is available at: HBLetter.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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