Don’t Be Evil, Don’t Be Inconvenient


When I got out of bed, I clicked off my alarm clock, donned socks and a long-sleeve shirt, washed hands in the dim light of the barely-risen sun, and checked my email: Someone I didn’t know added me on Google+, Google’s second and better stab at social networking, which I’d warily scoped, joined, and forgotten about. The first time they tried it, Google signed up all Gmail users automatically and made them “public contacts” with everyone they emailed most, forging suddenly personal connections between coworkers and outing extramarital affairs, so whatever Google+ was, it was better than that.

The F12 button on my laptop called up the image of a storm cloud, a current temperature of 65, a high of 76. Information was now available so quickly that many people had taken up the habit of delaying one another’s gratification mid-sentence, and we were told today that you could now have your brew and eat it too, thanks to . . . wait for it . . . beer ice cream, that the most popular method of business communication was “by far and away” . . . wait for it . . . email, that a local government had cracked down on . . . wait for it . . . a Bible study, that Swiss tennis pro Roger Federer was the second-most respected figure in . . . wait for it  . . . the entire world, that the future of credit cards could be . . . wait for it . . . no credit cards, and then we were offered a joke: What’s the difference between Bono and God? Wait for it . God doesn’t think he is Bono. We demanded patience of one another when, in another age, we’d simply have paused for effect. We’d found words to fill even the holy silence between set-up and punch line.

The top five Google searches of the hour were Elizabeth Warren, HP CEO, X Factor Judges, Meg Whitman, and Revenge. Had I been one of the many searchers for each of those topics, I’d have learned that Elizabeth Warren was Obama’s Special Advisor for the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who had only a week ago announced her intention to run as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Scott Brown for his Massachusetts seat in the U.S. Senate, that Hewlett-Packard (HP) had just announced former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman as its new President and CEO, that a new (to the U.S.) music competition show called The X Factor had premiered yesterday evening featuring judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, L.A. Read, and Nicole Scherzinger, and that Revenge was both “a harmful action against a person or group in response to a grievance, be it real or perceived” and a new television thriller based loosely on The Count of Monte Cristo.

Meanwhile at a staff meeting at the hospital where Felicity Davis was a nurse’s assistant, Felicity learned she was to spend the 12-hour workday training a new nurse’s assistant on how to take EKGs (slang for the k-less word “electrocardiogram”). The morning began fine—the EKGs came out slowly and steadily, one at a time, and Julie the trainee was a natural—but soon Felicity and Julie were getting paged for EKGs faster than the two of them could complete them. Felicity asked her peers for help, but either no one could do it or no one would. Then came the real shitstorm: ST depressions on a patient in the resuscitation room. The patient needed a right-sided and posterior EKG stat but Felicity didn’t know how to do it, the trainee sure didn’t know how to do it, and the three other nurse’s assistants didn’t know either. So, after three minutes with their hands up this patient's nooks and crannies, they googled—that is, Google Image searched—where to put the leads. It worked, maybe saving his life, but Felicity suspected it might have gone better if there had been someone there in the hospital who knew what the fuck they were doing. If the guy had any sense, she told me, he’d have taken his heart attack elsewhere.

But could we even trust Google searches?, asked today’s newspapers. Could we know for certain that our search results were the product of an impossibly complex ever-changing algorithm tweaked solely for our efficiency and accuracy, and not for the profits of the search engine’s operators? Could we put our faith in Google’s unofficial corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” and leave it at that?

According to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt in yesterday’s congressional antitrust hearing, yes we sure could. But Google had long outgrown its plucky underdog status, and now had more dirt on each of us than even the government, even Target, and possibly even Facebook. The term Big Data often sambaed into conversation uninvited—we weren’t quite sure what it meant, but it scared us and we each wanted 500 shares. Google accounted for 65-70% of all computer searches and 97% of all phone searches, and in the hearing members of Congress kept using the word “monopoly,” despite the expensive and ubiquitous efforts of Microsoft to get people saying, “I’m not sure when the movie starts—let’s Bing it!”

Google’s search results were tailored to each user based on the user’s previous searches. Some said this was bad, that it was shrinking the internet, creating an echo chamber where we were all shielded from any opinions we didn’t agree with, and Eli Pariser in a TED Talk warned of a world where “the internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see but not necessarily what we need to see.” Others said no, the tailoring was Google’s way of getting us to the information each of us needed as quickly as possible. As individual users, it was tough to tell the difference. When we searched, we got the results we got, and those results felt fated, preordained, even when they led us to a shopping website helmed by the search engine’s operators.

The basis for the antitrust hearing was an independent study that found that while non-Google web searches yielded many different shopping sites, a Google search always listed Google Shopping as the third entry in its results.

“You’ve cooked it so you’re always third,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) concluded, and when Schmidt denied it, Lee said, “You have an uncanny attraction to the number three, then.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) said he was troubled by what they had learned, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said, “You run the racetrack. You own the racetrack. For a long time, you didn’t have any horses. Now you have horses . . . and your horses seem to be winning.”

If the data was right, Congress was right, and if the data was wrong, Google was right. Or it was possible that the data was right and Google had made an accidentally self-serving error in their algorithm. Right? It was a complicated algorithm.

It would have been nice if the newspaper articles had a definite answer, but since they didn’t, we readers were left to process the article based on what is known as confirmation bias, in which every one of us absorbs the information that confirms what we already think about the world (“Google is trustworthy” or “Google is devious”) and discards the information that doesn’t support it. When we use confirmation bias too much, we become closed-minded an unresponsive to emerging truths. When we do not use it enough, we go crazy.

A recently leaked memo to Washington Post reporters stressed the importance of providing hyperlinks in online articles, explaining what links were and why they were important. To further help the staff understand, the memo provided examples such as, “The Emmy Awards [link goes to early Post piece on the Emmys] will reward the best that TV has to offer on Sunday night.” New Media-savvy sites delighted in the Post’s evident out-of-touchness, holding the memo up as another example of a tired old paper ready to be put down.

Today Amazon unveiled plans to make Kindle books available in public libraries, the last e-reader format on the bandwagon, while many plucky American entrepreneurs continued to develop new and stylish ways to protect our Kindles, Nooks, and especially iPads in cloth, rubber, leather, plastic, wood, and more, and made many times more money from these accessories than the overseas workers who manufactured the iPads, who worked in high-pressure environments and had a habit of killing themselves. This is not to imply that I did not, three months later, become the owner of an iPad.

Meanwhile, more American companies were adopting “bring your own device” policies, giving employees stipends to buy whatever laptops and phones and tablets they most wanted and then letting the employees cart their stuff to and from work every day, because it sucked to have a good computer at home unused while you wasted minutes of every workday waiting for the shitty Dell in your cubicle to load. But then some employees wanted nice laptops or nice iPads that didn’t qualify for the stipends, and others didn’t like that now when they had computer problems they suddenly had to take the laptop they bought pretty much for work to the mall to get it repaired, eating up precious Saturdays, uncompensated.

Today, Dominic Harvey of Berwyn, Illinois sat in jail, having just yesterday been arrested for stealing and reselling an Apple laptop. Police identified Harvey because he’d taken a photo of himself with the laptop before selling it.

I used the same app to take a photo of myself that morning after I’d dressed for work. Photo Booth, unlike a normal camera, automatically inverted the pictures it took so that what I saw was not myself but my mirror image, so that my crooked nose, in the photo, tilted unrealistically to the left instead of to the right. We all tend to prefer our mirror selves to our photographed selves because it’s what we’re used to seeing every day. Still, Apple must have gotten complaints about all the indecipherable backwards writing in the mirror images; later incarnations of Photo Booth showed a mirror image as you took the photo and then reversed it again before sending the photo to your image gallery.

In most of the coffee shops of Northampton and beyond, it was Macbooks people were typing away at because Macbooks (Air or Pro, the original Macbook now discontinued) seemed to mess up less often and the lack of viruses was nice, and anyway Macs were what was cool—John Hodgeman, etc.—and it felt good to own something cool.

What none of us knew was that in 13 days, Apple founder/CEO Steve Jobs would die from pancreatic cancer. After he was diagnosed in 2003, Jobs spent nine months experimenting with herbal remedies and acupuncture and a vegan diet, searching the web for easier fixes, before finally agreeing to have surgery. His doctors estimated he’d have lived longer if he hadn’t waited.

What we did know was that Mac’s victory over PC made had made PC companies nervous for their own survival, perhaps nobody more so than Hewlett-Packard, who as I’ve mentioned named billionaire (and top search result) Meg Whitman as the new CEO, replacing Leo Apotheker, who for his embarrassing performance was awarded $7.2 million in severance pay.

The process of hiring Apotheker reportedly went like this: When a CEO search committee of four board members whittled the list down to three finalists, the rest of the board refused to meet the finalists. And when the same committee selected Apotheker as their recommended candidate, the board still refused to meet him until after they’d hired him. Speculation was some board members hated each other so much they’d sooner tank the company than get together.

Meg Whitman, too, was the product of a very short search. A Harvard Business School alum, Whitman worked as an executive at DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro, before serving as CEO of eBay from 1998-2008, during which eBay’s revenue grew from less than $100 million to almost $8 billion. From 1998-2002, Whitman steered much of eBay’s business to the banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs, while Goldman during that same time made initial public offering (IPO) shares available to her before others had a chance to purchase them. Whitman bought many shares, then sold them soon after they hit the market, making a quick $1.78 million. This technique, called “spinning,” is a potential conflict of interest in which investment banks win the favor of the CEOs of large corporations so that the corporations will do business with the investment banks. “The problem with IPO spinning,” Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin once said, “is that it's bribery.” eBay shareholders sued, and when a federal committee investigated Whitman, she said that “while reasonable people can debate whether giving private banking clients preferred access to IPO shares is fair,” there was “no question about the legality of this practice.” Then she resigned from Goldman’s board.

In 2009, Whitman announced that she would run for Governor of California, a post previously held by Austrian bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger who in 2003 was not going to run for governor until, when on the way to an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he decided to announce his candidacy. This will freak everyone out, Schwarzenegger thought to himself. It’ll be so funny. Upon his election, Schwarzenegger, having recently been paid $30 million for reprising his popular role as a robot from the future, respectfully declined his annual governor’s salary of $175,000 per year. And today, Simon & Schuster announced it would publish Schwarzenegger’s memoir, tentatively titled Total Recall. Like the movie.

Whitman ran not against Schwarzenegger (who was ineligible to run for reelection) but against Democrat and former California governor Jerry Brown, a fiscal conservative who in 1979 appointed the first openly gay judge in the United States. Whitman spent $144 million of her own money on her campaign against Brown, which ultimately amounted to $45 for each vote she received. Each candidate smeared the other with negative ads; Matt Lauer asked them to stop.

Hewlett-Packard was founded in a Palo Alto garage in 1935, and had its first big hit with its improved precision audio oscillator, which was more stable than competitor models and sold for much cheaper. 71 years later, HP suspected that someone within company ranks was leaking classified information to the press, so HP’s general council paid a team of security experts to hire private investigators to illegally obtain phone records by impersonating HP board members as well members of the press. This is known as pretexting.

Newsweek in its 2009 Green Rankings of America’s largest 500 companies ranked HP at #1 for its reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, recycling efforts, and removal of toxic chemicals from its products, and in 2010, Ethisphere named HP one of the world’s most ethical companies. If you trusted HP, you agreed with Ethisphere and if you did not trust HP, you pointed to the board’s pretexting and CEO’s share spinning for evidence. All of this information was widely available for anyone who took the time to search it out, but no one could say for certain whether the sum of this information made HP’s products more appealing, less appealing, or exactly as appealing as before.

The issue that instead united the internet was what a shame it was that Netflix now cost more than it used to.

Three weeks ago, Netflix upped prices from $10/month for both DVD service and unlimited streaming to $7.99 for DVD service and another $7.99 for streaming, a 60% price increase that cost the company only 4% of their customers while the rest of us grumbled and conceded that the service was still worth the cost. Eventually, Liz and I would cut out the DVD service altogether as the growing streaming library became available from our Wii, phones, iPad, and DVD player—anything with wi-fi and a screen—but for now (at least until I finished The Wire) we hung on to the one thing we still consistently looked forward to from the US Postal Service as it slowly went broke from disuse.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings apologized on video for failing to explain why the company had raised prices and, in the same breath, rolled out a new deal that not only retained the price hike but made the use of Netflix considerably more of a hassle: Netflix planned to break up its DVD subscription service from its video streaming service into two separate companies. The streaming service would remain Netflix and the DVD service would be called Qwikster.

Qwikster rhymed with trickster and called to mind Napster, a music downloading service whose heyday was just over a decade past, as well as Friendster, a social networking site that was crushed by MySpace, which was then crushed by Facebook.

And so the announcement came, but tentatively, and without the requisite social media push: no Qwikster Facebook page, no blog, no Twitter account. And in fact, Netflix failed to secure the @qwikster handle from a barely comprehensible high schooler, Jason Castillo, who suddenly found himself with thousands of new followers, and who today was on the defensive for posting as his profile avatar a rendering of Sesame Street’s Elmo smoking a joint. “Well this is wats gonna happen,” Castillo wrote in a series of tweets,

ima apologize to everyone who had the rong Idea of who I was over a comment n a pic . . . I do not recommend anyone to use drug nor do I use them they bring nothing good to ur life I never really thought by having a pic of . . . Such sorta will bring so much dislike n I understand why so I apologize to all for me giving the rong impression but I don't use drug at all,

despite having earlier this summer tweeted, “Bored as shyt wanna blaze but at the same time I don't ugh fuck it where's the bowl at spark me up lls.”

“Rather than simply apologizing,” said tech columnist Don Resinger, “the company could have said that it was wrong with its new pricing scheme and gone back to the old way,” which was, from a business standpoint, impossible. Qwikster or no, Netflix was never going to be able to keep up the low prices of its heyday. Much like how nobody today could afford to (legally) release an album like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique for the cost of all those samples, content providers now demanded much more for the streaming rights to their movies than they did when Netflix began streaming video.

The true problem with Qwikster was the hassle, real or imagined, that the separation of Netflix services would impose on customers. At a time when the web giants were jumping headfirst into one-stop service integration (You like roast beef recipes? Now you can check your roast beef recipes without ever leaving Facebook!), Netflix asked users to manage two different websites, two different billing accounts, and most egregious, two different movie queues.

The chorus of “Netflix Fail Song,” a YouTube parody of Foster the People’s Billboard Hot Single (#3) “Pumped Up Kicks,” went,

All the stupid pics I get from Netflix,
eighteen bucks is a ton
when Redbox costs one,

and in online cartoon The Oatmeal, a cashier at a fast food place called Netwiches happily tells a customer, “We listened to your feedback and we only sell buns now. If you want meat and condiments you have to go across the parking lot to another restaurant!”

Netflix’s error was easier to spot than Google’s shopping scandal or HP’s pretexting scandal. While the Google and HP may have sacrificed their integrity, Netflix sacrificed the ease of its service. This was the sort of mistake we knew how to punish. The internet’s use we’d best mastered, after all, was its ability to air our grievances.  

Copyright © 1999-2017 Juked