Publisher's Note — January 17, 2013, 11:29 pm

Google’s Media Barons

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on January 16, 2013.

I had to cheer when I read the news the other week about a French company that’s selling an ad-blocking service on the Internet. Xavier Niel, the entrepreneurial owner of the web-service provider Free, is threatening to smash the advertiser-supported “free-content” model. That model has transformed Google’s Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt into media barons who make William Randolph Hearst look like a small-time operator. Niel, it seems, would also like to make the Internet “free,” but in a way that horrifies the so-called content providers — that is free of paid advertising.

As publisher of a magazine that specializes in substantive, complex, and occasionally lengthy journalism and literature, and that also lives off advertising, I’ve long objected to Google’s systematic campaign to steal everything that isn’t welded to the floor by copyright — while playing nice with its idiotic slogan “Don’t be evil.”

As a journalist and board member of the Authors Guild, I’ve watched in dismay as writers, living and dead, have suffered steep drops in income and copyright control thanks to Google’s — and its smaller rivals’ — logistical support for pirating and repackaging everything that we writers, editors, and publishers hold dear. From the humblest newspaper reporter to the most erudite essayist, we do the work, we invest the money and time, some of us risk our lives — and Google, broadly speaking, reaps the benefits without spending a dime.

This for-profit theft is committed in the pious guise of universal access to “free information,” as if Google were just a bigger version of your neighborhood public library. Acceptance of such a fairy tale lets parasitic search engines assert that they are “web neutral,” just disinterested parties whose glorious mission is to educate and uplift.

This is nonsense, of course. Google’s bias for search results that list its own products above those of its competitors is now well-known, but equally damaging, and less remarked, is the bias that elevates websites with free content over ones that ask readers to pay at least something for the difficult labor of writing, editing, photographing, drawing, and painting and thinking coherently. Try finding Harper’s Magazine when you Google “magazines that publish essays” or “magazines that publish short stories” — it isn’t easy.

Or try to get up-to-date news about Xavier Niel and Free through your friendly local Google search engine. Not exactly web neutral, our buddy-philanthropists Larry, Sergey, and Eric.

Publishers and writers are belatedly recognizing the self-defeating nature of their own free-content platforms, as advertising is dispersed through the Internet in more and more fractionalized and lower-cost quantities. But these authentic content producers have been largely complicit in their own decline by aiding and abetting the childish belief that search engines are intended to educate (as opposed to making money for their owners) and that education via the Internet can bypass the necessary struggle of reading, analyzing, and connecting texts, in depth and over time.

“We’ll do it for you,” say Larry, Sergey, and Eric, and it will all be free! Now Larry, Sergey, and Eric are billionaires, while the average writer and teacher can barely make ends meet.

Thus proceeds the infantilization of the American public, hooked more than ever on superficial, unchecked information sometimes rewritten from more reliable, though uncredited sources. It’s no coincidence that Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Yelp sound like toddler gibberish from the Teletubbies.

Whenever I hear these silly corporate names invoked with sanctimonious awe, I imagine Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po, and Tinky-Winky singing their hit single “Teletubbies say ‘Eh-oh’ ” as they shake the change out of some two-year-old’s pocket. Come to think of it, Eric Schmidt’s new playmate, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, bears a more than superficial resemblance to Po.

Where will it end, as the dumbing down of America accelerates and Google becomes ever more dominant? A psychoanalyst friend tells me that listening to baby talk may be gratifying up to a point, but that constant subjection to it produces unconscious rage in adults. This unending assault of babble potentially could lead to revolutionary conditions in which the new writer-teacher proletariat rises up to overthrow the Internet oligarchy and the politicians and government agencies who protect it. (See, for example, the Federal Trade Commission’s dropping of its antitrust investigation of Google in early January because Google’s practices actually help consumers. Google spends much time and money lobbying for its interests in Washington — an estimated $25 million during the FTC probe.)

Or, perhaps as likely, the relentless stream of googoo-gaga propaganda from Larry, Sergey, and Eric will further deaden the senses of a people inured to violence in their films, their newspapers (which report on a largely unaccountable American army’s patriotic mission against the infidel in foreign lands), and in their own hometowns.

There’s no need to despair, however. Little kids love free stuff and we can still watch Teletubbies for free on YouTube. All together now, sing “Eh-oh!”

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

From the January 2018 issue

The Human Factor

How I learned the real meaning of dissent

Publisher's Note December 13, 2017, 7:25 pm

McCain’s War

“Although McCain participated in a morally unpardonable war in which the United Sates killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, one can’t help sympathizing with him in his reduced state.”

Publisher's Note November 10, 2017, 5:29 pm

Industrial Tourism

NAFTA is an investment contract that protects American and Canadian goods and interests against Mexican expropriation, regulation, and pestering by local authorities.

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Amount American Airlines saved in 1987 by eliminating one olive from each salad served in first class:

$40,000

A daddy longlegs preserved in amber 99 million years ago was found to have an erection.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today