Google have a pretty good news service (that link will take you to the Irish page, but there are versions localised for over thirty countries, with more coming on stream all the time). It basically runs a search on a whole bunch of news sites, figures out what’s being talked about most, and then presents a selection of headlines and links to those stories all on one page.
It’s your one-stop-shop for up-to-date news(tm) Or something.
Of course, with such a huge audience, one can only hope that the Google search algorithms work properly and aren’t infected with the political biases of their programmers. Or the people who pay the programmers.
Google China, for instance, is prepared to only present links to stories and news sources approved by the Chinese government. The main argument in favour of this strategy (as I understand it) is that in situations where control is not yours; it’s better to provide access to some information, rather than none at all. Well, firstly, I’m not at all sure that’s true as a point of principle. Secondly and most importantly; in situations where the information is being filtered by a vested interest (i.e. in practice) it’s a load of horsehit.
There is one clear truth of the matter. The Google Corporation is providing its Chinese users with a view of the world tailored to fit the wishes of a totalitarian government. That’s the end result of all the philosophical faux-debate. Google is – in essence – a powerful tool of propaganda being wielded by the Chinese government.
And it isn’t doing this because Google believes the Chinese people might benefit from “some information” (read: “information approved by The Inner Party”). Google doesn’t believe anything. Google is a massive multinational corporation with a legal duty to maximise the return on investment of its shareholders. Google is acting as a tool of Chinese propaganda because it cannot afford to lose access to the Chinese market.
It’s doing it for the money. The thirty billion pieces of silver.
Oh, and all the others are doing it too. This isn’t a Google-only thing. I’m just using them as the example because I have a problem with a corporation whose motto is “Don’t Do Evil”.
Like it’s got any choice in the matter.
Anyways, quite aside from my healthy suspicion of any large news-filtering service; every now and then I glimpse what can only be – if not the political bias – then at least the sense of humour of the programmers, showing through the cracks in the code. How else do you explain this…
I wonder does Thomas Pynchon open the newspaper at the breakfast table some mornings and think “I can’t compete with this. I’m off down the pub.” Where he’s joined by Kurt Vonnegut and the ghosts of Richard Heller and Hunter S. Thompson, and they all shake their heads in stunned horror at a world imitating their art.
“Hey guys, could I trouble you for a minute? It’s just… I can’t believe you’re all here… this is amazing. The thing is… I have this idea for a novel, and who better to get some notes from, right?”
The four look aghast. A wannabe Irish writer with a thing for Joyce wants to run a story idea by them. Richard whispers to Hunter, “I told you this was hell.”
“Well… it starts like this… the USA is run by a right-wing nutter who counts The Lord His God among his political advisors. This guy actually hears the voices, right? One morning there’s an incredibly cinematic attack on America (got an eye on possible movie rights) and he just snaps. Goes completely off the deep end. Wrath of God, End Times. That kind of stuff. He wasn’t psychologically prepared to deal with the responsibilities he faced and retreated from them. He became instead “a tool of God”. Accepting orders from On High.
Within days of the attack he’s pointing the finger of blame. Three almost entirely unrelated nations are labelled The Axis of Evil. And a fourth is quickly invaded.
Meanwhile in Iran, they’re getting a little worried. One of the more progressive nations in the region they had – for over a decade now – been moving slowly away from complete domination by the religious establishment towards something slightly more secular. It was by no means an overnight change, but it was a slow evolution towards a balance. Exactly the kind of process that might stand a chance of succeeding.
Suddenly though, they find themselves branded “evil” by the most powerful man on the planet. Commander in Chief of a military machine so fearsome that the only way to fight it is to allow it to reduce your nation to rubble and then plant booby-traps in the rubble. And to make matters worse, that military machine has begun the process of occupying Afghanistan. The country on Iran’s eastern border.
Of course this is a dream come true to the religious establishment in Iran. For years they’ve been trading on threats of The Great Satan. America was getting ready to pounce. Just you wait. Any minute now. You’ll see.
But America had eight years of Clinton. And while he lobbed cruise missiles once in a while, and periodically bombed places, he never really gave the impression of being about to pounce. Well, I never thought so anyways.
Now though. Not only did the Great Satan pounce, but he pounced on their next door neighbour. All the while making threats to reduce Iran to rubble as well. The clerics had a field-day. And one, frankly, that it’s hard to begrudge them. Nobody likes it when someone says “I told you so”, but you have to acknowledge their right to do so. If they did indeed tell you so.
Then the bloody great satan pounced again. This time on the country that borders Iran to the west. One of the other two countries that the fundamentalist president had called “evil”. The people of Iran started to freak out and demanded that their government protect them. The world’s most fearsome military was busy laying waste to the countries on both sides of them. It’s leader had all but singled out Iran as next in line. People are dying there for crying-out-loud!
We’ve got electricity and hot water and enough good food to eat. Our kids are going to a good school and our eldest is starting university in September. Most importantly though; bombs aren’t falling on our house or exploding in the supermarket next to the school. When it comes to quality of life, that last one is something we really rate highly in Iran.
So here’s the thing. We’re going to vote out the reformist chap who we voted in last time. That guy was always talking about “dialogue with the west”, and you only have to look at what’s happening in the countries next door to realise that brute force is the only language these people understand. I mean, just look at what they do with their P.O.W’s!
In the reformer’s place we’re going to vote for the hardliner who promises to protect us. Yeah, I have a big problem with his views on women’s rights… and I’m even pretty dubious about his whole “hate the jews” thing. But thanks to the fact that bombs are falling next door, our elections have become somewhat single-issue. Can you blame us? We’re going to vote for the bloke who says he has a plan to prevent the bombs from falling here.
And so they did.”
“And then”, sighs the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson, “Iran develops nukes as the obvious method of deterring an attack. After all, it’s worked for everyone else whose done it… big fighter aircraft deals for the boys. But that part of the world is just too goddamn volatile. It’s a tinderbox full of powderkegs. And it doesn’t make sense to put nukes in the hands of them that’s got the Lord Their God as political advisors. So Iran ends up nuking Israel. Or the other way round. Who knows how it starts… maybe political fallout from some inflammatory speech… or maybe some maintenance grunt smoking weed on the job falling asleep on the big red button… after fighting a war on it for best part of a century, turns out pot decided to hit back.
Anyways Iran and Israel nuke each other and then things get a little out of hand. Russia, the US and finally China, India and Pakistan. Hell even the Brits and the French find someone to launch at… no sense missing the party.”
I nod. “And the whole world goes up in smoke”. It’s a weak joke to end on. And I know it. But the weariness in Hunter’s voice has already taken the wind from my sails.
“My dear boy”, says Mr. Vonnegut softly, “it’s too implausible to make good satire and too damn depressing to make good fantasy. Go peddle it to the people who publish Tom Clancy. Maybe you’ll get a look-in there.”