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. Continue reading

Are the guardians of national boundaries beginning to look pathetic?

Golden Genie by Phototacular/Flickr

Commenting on the post about the Google Dilemma, The Other Gardener said:

“There is very little that can be said to be “essential about national boundaries” now that the genie is out of the lamp. I think the guardians of these boundaries, including the academics, will always lag behind. They are already beginning to look pathetic. The nation, as they used to say, ain’t got a chance.”

Well, that’s my suspicion too, but I’m not sure what Genie has escaped. Do we really look less divided-by-nation than we did, say in the colonial period, when there were far fewer nation states? Interesting that in the last 60 years nation states have proliferated, while some other markers of nationality, particularly languages, have collapsed and died. The concept of the nation is certainly shifting, but seemingly not going away. In many respects the concept of national boundaries has become firmer, more worried over,  than at any time since WWII.

In defence of those lagging academics, they’ve been talking about ‘globalization’ for decades. Also: world risk society (Beck), world-society (Luhmann), world systems theory (Wallerstein), world polity (Meyer), the Cosmopolitan Condition (Beck again, who mentions all these) and on and on.  Academics keep announcing the transformation of the nation concept, and the nation just keeps reinventing itself.

One way of conceptualising the rift between Google and the Chinese Government might be to look at it in relation to terms used by John Urry (and Manuel Castells’):  regions, networks, scapes and flows. Here a regional configuration (China) is renegotiating its influence when engaged with a network configuration (Google/ the Internet). Or perhaps, it is rather that one region/network (the US/Google) is being disrupted by another region/network (China/security attacks) in terms of disrupting flows (censorship, spying, denial of service attacks etc). To use Urry’s terms, internal Chinese dissent might be seen as a kind of fluid that the scape of the Internet, with Google as a significant node attempting to be a hub, makes global. Either way, it seems the traditional nation-based regional version of power politics (in this case between the US and China) is being disrupted and re-configured by the emergence of new networks, with new nodes and new kinds of fluids with new kinds of flows.

Like that genie escaping from the lamp, these flows are unexpected and exceedingly hard to contain.

Thanks for the comment. Look out for the next installment, in which we’ll consider which kinds of cultural bias might favour nations and nationhood –  and which might not.

Image: Golden Genie by Phototacular/Flickr

The Google Dilemma. National Differences and Cross-Cultural Theory

“Good enough for our transatlantic friends … but unworthy of the attentions of practical or scientific men.”

Good enough for our transatlantic friends?

This was the verdict of a British Parliamentary Committee , on the implications of Thomas Edison’s new electric lamp, which had been patented in the US in 1879.

In the gloom of the gas-light they couldn’t see the significance of Edison’s invention. But equally they misunderstood national differences. If the lamp was ‘good enough’ for American use, why would that change just by crossing an ocean? And if it really had no ‘practical or scientific’ worth, why wouldn’t practical or scientific Americans be able to spot that flaw just as well as their British counterparts?

I’m exploring differences across national boundaries, specifically with reference to Geert Hofstede’s Cross-Cultural Theory, which is explored most fully in his book, Cultures and Organizations. Software of the Mind. I’m doing so to try to discover whether the recent argument between Google and the Chinese Government on censorship comes down to cultural misunderstanding, or something else.

Continue reading

God-like Google?

Nick Carr posted a piece about the ‘Omnigoogle’, accusing it of being messianic in tone. People seem confused about the status of Google. it can be clarified thus.

  1. Although Google’s working mantra is supposedly ‘don’t be evil’, evil is exactly what it has been doing in relation to Chinese censorship. This makes it a lot like a number of other US based companies who will do anything the Chinese government wants as long as there is money to be made. Google is no different from American business generally in this regard. It’s the same old same old. Compare US business attitudes to pre-war Germany.
  2. If there was ever an organisation with deep connections to the CIA, Google is it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. It’s just obvious that if the CIA isn’t deeply involved they’ve missed the best opportunity in the history of intelligence-gathering.

These two factors suggest a strong case for improved regulation. It’s as though the technology has moved so fast and scaled so quickly that the citizens not only haven’t protected themselves yet – they mostly haven’t even worked out they need protecting. This seems a dangerous moment. But it’s difficult because with the hand we can see, Google seems to be offering us greater freedom. This is exactly the freedom it’s busy taking away with the other hand out of sight under the table. Neat trick if you can pull it off. The end result is that we’re made ambivalent about curtailing Google’s powers.

So what would clean Google up? Less censorship of content overseas, and less ownership of data at home. I think a revamp of law is required to make the data I generate online mine, not some company’s to do what it likes with. Oh, and if a few more people said “what if Google supports/ is supported by the CIA?” perhaps someone would start investigating it, instead of assuming that ‘don’t be evil’ means what it says.

By the way, the religious stuff – messianic, god-like and all – is a red herring.