Google, propaganda, and the new New Man

Since when was 'intervening' in TV shows a good idea?

Comment Google has begun to infuse American TV and movies shows with propaganda – "good propaganda", the company insists. However, it's unlikely to please two groups who rarely agree on anything: those who think Google isn't diverse enough, and conservatives who fear its political and media power.

So far, Google's "interventions" have so far been limited to making computer geeks appear more attractive. For example, following Google's advice, a greater proportion of programmers portrayed will be women, rather than guys in hoodies. Shows apparently benefitting from the Google touch include Halt and Catch Fire, and the sitcom Silicon Valley. And expect more of the usual homilies to "learn to code" – another more subtle form of indoctrination.

President Obama was kept up to date on the efforts. White House logs show that he met both Google's co-ordinator, media program manager Julie Ann Crommett, and the academics Google funded to study the initiative, Professor Stacy Smith at USC Annenberg, a prominent commentator on gender issues.

Diversity campaigners and conservatives have good reason to be wary when Google inserts itself in the business of mass communication. Let's take each case in turn.

Google is being sued by the US Department of Labor for systematically underpaying its women employees, a lawsuit it tried to suppress, before arguing that it was too busy to answer the charges. By presenting a diverse sample of fictional characters, coding will become more attractive.

The very fact that it's helping to shape fiction makes the very un-diverse reality of Silicon Valley look much more fragrant. A cynic could say that Google's adoption of iconic progressive causes airbrushes the fact that it's a rapacious and cynical corporation with immense lobbying power, funding over 170 organisations and institutions. But who'd possibly want to regulate a company that is spreading love and goodness? Look at us, and the things we love – we can't possibly be evil!

However, Google has not one, but two diversity problems, and the firing of James Damore highlighted both. One is diversity of representation, the other is diversity of opinion.

"Even at their most powerful the industrial age moguls could not control what people knew. They might back a newspaper, or later a radio or television station, but never secured absolute control of media," notes Joel Kotkin in a recent (must-read) piece about the power of Silicon Valley's oligarchs.

In a marked contrast to 20 years ago, Silicon Valley increasingly has a uniformity of opinion, Kotkin points out. You could find moderate Republicans elected to office in San Mateo and Santa Clara as recently as the 1980s. Conservatives accuse Google of enforcing diversity with an iron fist, thereby discriminating against the most capable applicants who happen to be in a majority group. In his clod-footed contribution to Google's internal debate, programmer Damore pointed out that conservative views were increasingly stigmatised at Google, and Google duly confirmed the point by firing him. With Facebook and Twitter surrendering the role of neutral networks, and increasingly policing what views we see, Google's "interventions" in the media are going to be closely watched.

But they're hardly new – and there's an interesting parallel from history. In his book The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties, Fred Turner, Stanford's historian of Silicon Valley (interview) describes a much earlier propaganda initiative.

It grew out of a wartime effort to engage the leading intellectuals of the day, the splendidly titled "Committee for National Morale". One of the participants was keen on "constructing a maze in which the anthropomorphic rats get the illusion of free will". After the Second World War, social scientists and other experts took up the challenge, and sought to fashion a "New Man". Turner makes the case that this culminated in Sixties hippy "happenings", Andy Warhol's Factory, and Burning Man.

But as Turner warns, ultra-individualism came at a cost. When "the business of the individual is to be a free, articulate participant among others" collective political action is neglected. Politics is entrusted to experts.

As one reviewer pointed out: "Under this system Americans from all walks of life could enjoy the benefits of managerial largesse, but they were not expected to participate in the top-down ordering of society."

Turner sees a connection between this initiative and the moguls of today.

"Folks who buy into that vision have failed to do the institution-building that actually generates change. That's a negative legacy on the Left, and it's one that all sorts of New Media companies take advantage of. Google and Facebook are counting on it," he says.

So there's every reason to be wary of huge corporations funding "benign" propaganda initiatives. It may seem as warm, cute and cuddly as a Google Doodle, but at the end of the day, it's still propaganda. Is giving Silicon Valley even more power a good idea? And is outsourcing politics to tycoons, who say the right things really ultimately helpful?

You tell me. But I just can't see how Mike Judge's Silicon Valley sitcom is likely to be funnier if the main characters are replaced by versions who are cleaner, nicer and more woke. ®

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