The Google Dilemma, Part 2

What kinds of organisations require there to be nations, complete with identifiable and distinctive national characteristics? In the past we knew we’d traveled because the people around us spoke a different language, or wore different clothes and ate different food. But these differences were often more regional than national.  For many purposes, that’s not enough. Isn’t there something about a nation’s respect for authority, or its approach to gender differences, or view of time – the long-term and the short term? What kinds of circumstance would lead to a need for greater categorization of national differences?

Hierarchical, Individualist and Egalitarian: contested views of nationhood

The very concept of the unified territory is strongly Hierarchical in origin (specifically, it is ‘strong grid’) – it is the king who unites the nation, under God. And it is the king whose task it is to demonstrate by conquest that in the divinely ordained hierarchy of nations, his nation ranks first. The early nation state is really an extension of the power of the monarchy. The modern version of this, that political legitimacy derives from a people, underpins the modern bureaucratic nation state, characterised by a cascade of checks and balances and a distinctly poor track record at making binding international agreements that don’t merely reinforce the established league-table of nations. Such institutions as monarchies and parliaments will be likely to attempt to naturalise national identity by identifying ‘innate’ national characteristics and establishing institutions that are ‘national’. [A national football team is a construction from the late 19th Century; supporting it is supposed to come naturally]. Every international gathering or institution is an opportunity to assert national supremacy.

The idea that national characteristics are to be ignored, or don’t exist, or are constructed, and not natural, is an anti-hierarchical one (specifically, ‘weak grid’). A non-hierarchical approach will regard evidence of national cultures not as information to be acted on but as noise to be filtered out and ignored.

There are two distinct versions of this filtering out of national difference.

The Egalitarian perspective regards all people as equal and national distinctions as illusory. As all Egalitarians know in their hearts and still hum under their breath, the Internationale unites the human race. On this account, we are different only in trivial, quirky, interesting ways, but are united by more serious considerations such as the small size of the planet we share. Empirical observations of national characteristics are a) wrong, since all differences can be accounted for in terms other than national (for instance, do all French speakers live in France? Does Edison’s electric light only work in America?) and b) politically suspect, since they are always stated in the interests of particular power configurations, not disinterested knowledge. If, as the saying goes, a language is a dialect with an army, then by extension a national culture is a dress code, a sporting obsession, a cheese – backed up by military and other institutional means. In other words, national is far from natural.

The Individualist perspective sees each person as unique and unrepeatable, and as uniquely exploitable. What unifies human nature is our infinite difference. Since difference is serious, not trivial, Individuals want to be free from artificial constraints on their uniqueness. They seek free trade, free movement, free speech and free combination. National constraints just obstruct the pursuit of liberty. Some of the proponents of the French and American revolutions saw themselves not merely as post-monarchical but, at least partly, as establishing a refuge from nationalism. In 1776 Thomas Paine published a vision in his groundbreaking pamphlet Common Sense, of a new, American nationalism as ‘a sanctuary of freedom for humanity’, ‘an asylum for mankind’ (quoted in Foner 1999, Ch 1). He should know: he had been in the colonies for all of two years.

The Google Dilemma

Individualism is content to profit from differences rather than trying to organise them into blocks such as nations. So in 2010 when the globalising American Internet company Google tries to sell its products in China the distinctly Chinese ways of doing things are ignored for as long as possible, based on a cultural bias that says the whole world is a field for competition and the pursuit of profit should be possible everywhere. CEO Eric Schmitt said:

“We love what China is doing as a country and its growth… We just don’t like the censorship. We hope to apply some negotiation or pressure to make things better for the Chinese people.”

The Chinese Government’s response has been to avoid talking about censorship. At the Dohar talks in January 2010, participants were guided to talk about more ‘positive’ issues (Delaney and Levy 2010).

According to Bloomberg press agency, a Chinese embassy spokesperson, Wang Baodong said: “Chinese Internet policies are sensible, rational and legitimate. People there enjoy sufficient access to both the Internet itself and the content.” (op cit)

“Was there ever any domination that did not appear natural to those that possessed it?” Wrote the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill (1869:20f). Or perhaps, as Christopher McNally of the East-West Center put it, it’s really about “a clash of values on both sides”. (op cit)

Google’s dilemma can be seen as a clash between broadly American values entering a Chinese milieu and getting national difference wrong (and Chinese values misunderstanding the American ones). That would be the direction an interpretation inspired by Cross-Cultural theory might take. But Grid-Group Cultural theory would see Google’s dilemma as one that all Individualist organisations are likely to face when confronted with strongly hierarchical expectations. How to move forward?

Partial Solutions

Each of the cultural biases identified by Grid Group Cultural Theory is at best a partial solution to the issue of intractable differences in society that may or may not be characterised as national. So in the case of Google, the Chinese Government’s distinctive approach to censorship is first ignored (Individualist), then accommodated (Fatalist), then recast in terms of censorship and human rights (Egalitarian), then, unable to accept the Hierarchical imperative of doing business in China, in which bureaucratic patronage is all, Google ‘threatens’ to pull out completely. The organisation literally doesn’t know its place. This is an instance of cultural bias moulding an institution both internally, as Google management seeks to work out what the company ‘stands for’, and externally, as the Chinese Government seeks to impose a strongly Hierarchical cultural bias on the company. Google’s responses are constrained, but it still has degrees of freedom to act, including the freedom to revolt. The Cross-Cultural Theory approach might be to suggest Google should start behaving in ways that don’t antagonise Chinese cultural values (is respect for freedom of speech somehow ‘un-Chinese? Actually, China has had very many periods of social revolt). It should be more culturally sensitive, perhaps. The Grid-Group Cultural theory approach would be to note that there is a repertoire of cultural biases which are available to Google, as well as to the Chinese Government. Recognising these can make an organisation more flexible and give it more options than simply aping what is expected of it. Perhaps the resources of the discourse of human rights could be mined more deeply to identify forms of human rights speak that are a little less overtly Egalitarian and a little more Hierarchical. After all, one of the key players in human rights discourse has been the Roman Catholic Church, in some ways a very Hierarchical institution. “I will drink to the Pope by all means,” wrote Cardinal Newman in 1875, “But to conscience first!” (quoted in Woodrow 1998). If the Vatican can do it, there is certainly hope for Beijing.

Now read Part 1

or watch out for part 3 of The Google Dilemma

6 thoughts on “The Google Dilemma, Part 2

    1. TOG, I support the line of Amnesty International on this, but I’m trying to examine my own biases. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims to be, well, universal. Is any regime exempt? If so, how so? If not, how not? If Google is having trouble with the concept of free speech via Chinese gmail accounts, why is this? How does the ‘universal’ nature of human rights get negotiated with a government that only recognises Chinese human rights? Can we even talk like this? Is there anything distinctly and appropriately Chinese in internet censorship, or is that just special pleading? To shine the spotlight back on the US, we could ask how this ‘freedom loving’ nation ends up executing so many of its prisoners (and how it comes to have so many prisoners in the first place). Is there something peculiarly and appropriately American that makes the penal regime so distinctive?
      Cross-cultural theory seems to assume that we would want to fit in with another nation’s patterns of social activity in order to make our business relationships work better. But what if we really don’t agree with them? I’m concerned that to naturalise national cultures is to concede too much, and that we would be wrong to suggest there’s something Chinese about censorship and something American about lethal injections. But if we don’t make national comparisons, what kinds of comparisons can we make instead? That’s where grid-group cultural theory comes in, I’m suggesting.

      1. People in the global investment class who still claim to be taking any matter from the point of view of nationalism are full of shit. Google is a multinational corporation, they couldn’t care less about all this. They agree to the demands of the Chinese government for profit. Don’t be idiotic. This is not about nationhood at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s