by Ian Pearson
Please don’t take this too seriously, it’s intended as just a bit of fun. All of it is subjective and just my personal opinion of the two companies.
Google’s old motto of ‘do no evil’ has taken quite a battering over the last few years, but my overall feeling towards them remains somewhat positive overall. Facebook’s reputation has also become muddied somewhat, but I’ve never been an active user and always found it supremely irritating when I’ve visited to change privacy preferences or read a post only available there, so I guess I am less positive towards them. I only ever post to Facebook indirectly via blog and twitter. On the other hand, both companies do a lot of good too. It is impossible to infer good or bad intent because end results arise from a combination of intent and many facets of competence such as quality of insight, planning, competence, maintenance, response to feedback and many others. So I won’t try to differentiate intent from competence and will just stick to casual amateur observation of the result. In order to facilitate score-keeping of the value of their various acts, I’ll use a scale from very harmful to very beneficial, -10 to +10.
Google (I can’t bring myself to discuss Alphabet) gave us all an enormous gift of saved time, improved productivity and better self-fulfilment by effectively replacing a day in the library with a 5 second online search. We can all do far more and live richer lives as a result. They have continued to build on that since, adding extra features and improved scope. It’s far from perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than we had before. Score: +10
Searches give Google a huge and growing data pool covering the most intimate details of every aspect of our everyday lives. You sort of trust them not to blackmail you or trash your life, but you know they could. The fact remains that they actually haven’t. It is possible that they might be waiting for the right moment to destroy the world, but it seems unlikely. Taking all our intimate data but choosing not to end the world yet: Score: +9
On the other hand, they didn’t do either of those things purely through altruism. We all pay a massive price: advertising. Advertising is like a tax. Almost every time you buy something, part of the price you pay goes to advertisers. I say almost because Futurizon has never paid a penny yet for advertising and yet we have sold lots, and I assume that many other organisations can say the same, but most do advertise, and altogether that siphons a huge amount from our economy. Google takes lots of advertising revenue, but if they didn’t take it, other advertisers would, so I can only give a smallish negative for that: Score: -3
That isn’t the only cost though. We all spend very significant time getting rid of ads, wasting time by clicking on them, finding, downloading and configuring ad-blockers to stop them, re-configuring them to get entry to sites that try to stop us from using ad-blockers, and often paying per MB for unsolicited ad downloads to our mobiles. I don’t need to quantify that to give all that a score of -9.
They are still 7 in credit so they can’t moan too much.
Tax? They seem quite good at minimizing their tax contributions, while staying within the letter of the law, while also paying good lawyers to argue what the letter of the law actually says. Well, most of us try at least a bit to avoid paying taxes we don’t have to pay. Google claims to be doing us all a huge favor by casting light on the gaping holes in international tax law that let them do it, much like a mugger nicely shows you the consequences of inadequate police coverage by enthusiastically mugging you. Noting the huge economic problems caused across the world by global corporates paying far less tax than would seem reasonable to the average small-business-owner, I can’t honestly see how this could live comfortably with their ‘do no evil’ mantra. Score: -8
On the other hand, if they paid all that tax, we all know governments would cheerfully waste most of it. Instead, Google chooses to do some interesting things with it. They gave us Google Earth, which at least morally cancels out their ‘accidental’ uploading of everyone’s wireless data as their street-view cars went past. They have developed self-driving cars. They have bought and helped develop Deep-Mind and their quantum computer. They have done quite a bit for renewable energy. They have spent some on high altitude communications planes supposedly to bring internet to the rural parts of the developing world. When I were a lad, I wanted to be a rich bastard so I could do all that. Now, I watch as the wealthy owners of these big companies do it instead. I am fairly happy with that. I get the results and didn’t have to make the effort. We get less tax, but at least we get some nice toys. Almost cancels. Score: +6
They are trying to use their AI to analyse massive data pools of medical records to improve medicine. Score: +2
They are also building their databases more while doing that but we don’t yet see the downside. We have to take what they are doing on trust until evidence shows otherwise.
Google has tried and failed at many things that were going to change the world and didn’t, but at least they tried. Most of us don’t even try. Score: +2
Oh yes, they bought YouTube, so I should factor that in. Mostly harmless and can be fun. Score: +2
Almost forgot Gmail too. Score: +3
I’m done. Total Google contribution to humanity: +14
Well done! Could do even better.
I’ve almost certainly overlooked some big pluses and minuses, but I’ll leave it here for now.
It’s obviously a good social network site if you want that sort of thing. It lets people keep in touch with each other, find old friends and make new ones. It lets others advertise their products and services, and others to find or spread news. That’s all well and good and even if I and many other people don’t want it, many others do, so it deserves a good score, even if it isn’t as fantastic as Google’s search, that almost everyone uses, all the time. Score: +5
Connected, but separate from simply keeping in touch, is the enormous pleasure value people presumably get from socializing. Not me personally, but ‘people’. Score: +8
On the downside: Quite a lot of problems result from people, especially teens, spending too much time on Facebook. I won’t reproduce the results of all the proper academic studies here, but we’ve all seen various negative reports: people get lower grades in their exams, people get bullied, people become socially competitive – boasting about their successes while other people feel insecure or depressed when others seem to be doing better, or are prettier, or have more friends. Keeping in touch is good, but cutting bits off others’ egos to build your own isn’t. It is hard not to conclude that the negative uses of keeping in touch outweigh the positive ones. Long-lived bad-feelings outweigh short-lived ego-boosts. Score: -8
Within a few years of birth, Facebook evolved from a keeping-in-touch platform to a general purpose mini-web. Many people were using Facebook to do almost everything that others would do on the entire web. Being in a broom cupboard is fine for 5 minutes if you’re playing hide and seek, but it is not desirable as a permanent state. Still, it is optional, so isn’t that bad per se: Score: -3
In the last 2 or 3 years, it has evolved further, albeit probably unintentionally, to become a political bubble, as has become very obvious in Brexit and the US Presidential Election, though it was already apparent well before those. Facebook may not have caused the increasing divide we are seeing between left and right, across the whole of the West, but it amplifies it. Again, I am not implying any intent, just observing the result. Most people follow people and media that echoes their own value judgments. They prefer resonance to dissonance. They prefer to have their views reaffirmed than to be disputed. When people find a comfortable bubble where they feel they belong, and stay there, it is easy for tribalism to take root and flourish, with demonization of the other not far behind. We are now seeing that in our bathtub society, with two extremes and a rapidly shallowing in-between that was not long ago the vast majority. Facebook didn’t create human nature; rather, it is a victim of it, but nonetheless it provides a near-monopoly social network that facilitates such political bubbles and their isolation while doing far too little to encourage integration in spite of its plentiful resources. Dangerous and Not Good. Score: -10
On building databases of details of our innermost lives, managing not to use the data to destroy our lives but instead only using it to sell ads, they compare with Google. I’ll score that the same total for the same reasons: Net Score: -3
Tax? Quantities are different, but eagerness to avoid tax seems similar to Google. Principles matter. So same score: -8
Assorted messaging qualifies as additional to the pure social networking side I think so I’ll generously give them an extra bit for that: Score: +2
They occasionally do good things with it like Google though. They also are developing a high altitude internet, and are playing with space exploration. Tiny bit of AI stuff, but not much else has crossed my consciousness. I think it is far less than Google but still positive, so I’ll score: +3
I honestly can’t think of any other significant contributions from Facebook to make the balance more positive, and I tried. I think they want to make a positive contribution, but are too focused on income to tackle the social negatives properly.
Total Facebook contribution to humanity: -14.
Oh dear! Must do better.
We’d be a lot worse off without Google. Even with their faults, they still make a great contribution to humankind. Maybe not quite a ‘do no evil’ rating, but certainly they qualify for ‘do net good’. On the other hand, sadly, I have to say that my analysis suggests we’d be a lot better off without Facebook. As much better off without them as we benefit by having Google.
If I have left something major out, good or bad, for either company please feel free to add your comments. I have deliberately left out their backing of their own political leanings and biases because whether you think they are good or bad depends where you are coming from. They’d only score about +/-3 anyway, which isn’t a game changer.
About the author
Ian Pearson has been a full-time futurologist for 26 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. He is a Maths and Physics graduate, a Doctor of Science, and has worked in numerous branches of engineering from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. His 1750+ inventions include text messaging and the active contact lens. He was BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. He writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. He has written seven books and made 700 TV and radio appearances. He is a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, the Royal Society of Arts and Commerce, and the World Innovation Foundation.
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