Database of Intentions : God Google

I enrolled for Coursera MOOC Understanding Media by Understanding Google. Unfortunately I will not be able to complete it due to sudden surge in my other work and personal commitments. But I am thankful for this course for introducing me to wonderful pieces of writing on Google and the immense “Orwellian” (cliched term I know) power it exercises over us. I have earlier written about it here, here, here, and here. Most of those pieces are inspired by two books The Filter Bubble and The Googlization of Everything which I highly recommend. Former is a real eye opening book in terms of amount of knowledge Google has about us and probably knows more about us than we would even admit to ourselves.

Another book that I came across is the dated The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business andTransformed Our Culture. I haven’t yet read it completely but it talked about a powerful concept “Database of Intentions”. As much as I study Google and more importantly social media trends, this should have been blindly obvious to me but it wasn’t. In The Filter Bubble it is covered that how much Google knows about individually, this book talks about how much Google knows about us collectively.

One analytic site reports, 88% of world used Google as their primary search engine.

This gives Google immense insight about what the world (at least the world that is online or has access to internet) is thinking. Are they searching for any particular news, interested in buying any particular brand of clothing or accessories, researching any particular listed financial instrument such currencies, stocks, bonds or commodities (sorry I am a financial guy so this is of my particular interest), checking symptoms to see what diseases have we contracted etc.

Google does release its annual zeitgest report

“Zeitgeist” means “the spirit of the times,” and this spirit can be seen through the aggregation of millions of search queries Google receives every day. The annual Zeitgeist report reveals what captured the world’s attention in the past year—our passions, interests and defining moments as seen through search.

but it is released periodically. Based on this there was this hoopla in 2010 about Pakistan No. 1 Nation in Sexy Web Searches? Call it Pornistan | Fox News. Pakistanis claim to be amongst the righteous people of world but Google search shows their hypocrisy i.e., in the privacy of their rooms, they are largest consumers of porn. Later Google raised doubts on the accuracy of the report but fact remains that Google is sitting on this huge pile of information. Its their PR strategy that they chose to share it with us. They can very chose not to share this information with us.

The real power resides in having real time information about us collectively. A hypothetical example: Google notices a sudden increase in search for special kind of symptoms in a particular locality. Whenever we feel unusual pain or symptoms, our first instinct is to search online and not approach the doctor. If its related to a contagious disease, Google will know days before anybody else that a contagious disease is spreading in that area.

If people start searching for Gold as an investment say in India or similar such country (with significant purchasing power and penchant for gold buying), Google may know that demand for Gold is about to increase. It can either sell this information or use it to make more money for itself at the expense of ordinary investors.

Above are just hypothetical example and come with lot of caveats for example assumes that people are net-savvy, affluent, and research such diseases/terms on internet. Seeing that gold prices are low, an Indian may not research and just go and buy it from a local shop and this whole sentiment-to-action process may not even register on Google. But as people become more affluent, their access to internet increases, the power due to the knowledge that Google has about us will increase.

I am not saying it is easy. People tried earlier to tap into this. Derwent Capital’s Twitter Hedge Fund tried just this:

London-based hedge fund Derwent Capital Markets said it had successfully marketed a new venture to a series of high-net worth clients that makes investment choices using information gathered from over 100 million daily tweets.

Simply put: the fund mines the Twitter-verse to gauge market sentiment, and that information—which the firm futuristically brands as “The 4th Dimension” is used to drive the portfolio’s holdings.

The company still exists and has renamed itself Cayman Atlantic. The fund was shutdown

not because its analysis of Twitter wasn’t working. During the one month that the $40 million Derwent Capital Markets fund was operation, it reportedly returned 1.86 percent, beating the overall market as well as the average hedge fund. The fund’s founder says that its analysis worked so well that one of the fund’s principal investors suggested making a mass-market product out of it, so as to reach a larger market instead of the handful able to invest in a hedge fund.

It might not have worked for the company but the potential is there. One reason could be that other hedge funds would also have developed such data mining software. And since markets are efficient, probably reduced any advantage the Twitter fund had to zero.

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My point is that with the amount of data rather real-time data Google holds about us, it has too much information about us. It may know more about a police-state’s nation than the government of that nation. A lot has been written about recent Arab Springs and earlier revolutions and how social media has been helpful in organizing them. However, in social media we are public or at least broadcasting our intentions. When we discreetly search for anything on Google, after God only two people know about it: us and Google. That is a pretty God like power to have.

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What does Google do to our brain?

The question was first raised by Nicholas Carr in his landmark piece for Atlantic magazine Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Key takeaways from his essay were

And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

……

“We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

….

The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.

…..

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in ph...

progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing.He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

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Recently, Clive Thompson attempted the question again in Slate by asking Is Google Wrecking Our Memory? and he answers it in this way

The short answer is: No. Machines aren’t ruining our memory.

The longer answer: It’s much, much weirder than that!

And he goes on to explain this as

What’s really happening is that we’ve begun to fit the machines into an age-old technique we evolved thousands of years ago—“transactive memory.” That’s the art of storing information in the people around us. We have begun to treat search engines, Evernote, and smartphones the way we’ve long treated our spouses, friends, and workmates. They’re the handy devices we use to compensate for our crappy ability to remember details.

And frankly, our brains have always been terrible at remembering details. We’re good at retaining the gist of the information we encounter. But the niggly, specific facts? Not so much.

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Wegner suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good “metamemory.” We’re aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we’re good at intuiting the memory abilities of others. Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you discover that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. They’re passionate about subject X; you’re passionate about subject Y. So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to notepads and encyclopedias, because we’re much quicker to query: Just yell a fuzzily phrased question across to the next cubicle (where do we keep the thing that we use for that thing?) and you’ll get an answer in seconds. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter.

…….

And as it turns out, this is what we’re doing with Google and Evernote and our other digital tools. We’re treating them like crazily memorious friends who are usually ready at hand.

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If there’s a big danger in using machines for transactive memory, it’s not about making us stupider or less memorious. It’s in the inscrutability of their mechanics. Transactive memory works best when you have a sense of how your partners’ minds work—where they’re strong, where they’re weak, where their biases lie. I can judge that for people close to me. But it’s harder with digital tools, particularly search engines. They’re for-profit firms that guard their algorithms like crown jewels. And this makes them different from previous forms of transactive machine memory.

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Like Socrates, I am tempted to extrapolate the above examples to say that transactive memory provided us a shared knowledge about our relationships and a means of connecting and interacting with each other. With the ubiquity of Google we will be interacting with our relationships lesser which may be harmful to our relationships as already 24 hour TV, MOMPRPG videogames and tweeting/facebooking have wreaked havoc with our relationships. And like Socrates, I will be shortsighted in saying that.

We cannot stop the march of technology. People might not have liked writing, TV, mobile phones, texting, social media but the fact remains that these services have become part of our social fabric and we can not tear them away from our lives. Google as a ubiquitous search engine is here to stay and with time will become stronger, more intrusive and omnipresent. As a company it may disappear as many “build-to-last” companies have disappeared before it but then some other company will come to fill in the role. The ubiquitous search engine be it Google or any other one in future, is part of our social and mental make up. Our brains have rewired themselves to live with it.

However, there is no free lunch. So there will be some costs associated with this. The costs that come to my mind are that we will not be able to make connections between different events unless Google makes those connections for us like the one Sherlock Holmes makes in BBC’s The Hounds of Baskerville.

There will be much less serendipity. Though Clive Thompson mentions the following hypothetical example,

In fact, as transactive partners, machines have several advantages over humans. For example, if you ask them a question you can wind up getting way more than you’d expected. If I’m trying to recall which part of Pakistan has experienced tons of U.S. drone strikes and I ask a colleague who follows foreign affairs, he’ll tell me “Waziristan.” But when I queried this online, I got the Wikipedia page on “Drone attacks in Pakistan.” I wound up reading about the astonishing increase of drone attacks (from one a year to 122 a year) and some interesting reports about the surprisingly divided views of Waziristan residents. Obviously, I was procrastinating—I spent about 15 minutes idly poking around related Wikipedia articles—but I was also learning more, reinforcing my generalized, “schematic” understanding of Pakistan.

Now imagine if my colleague behaved like a search engine—if, upon being queried, he delivered a five-minute lecture on Waziristan. Odds are I’d have brusquely cut him off. “Dude. Seriously! I have to get back to work.” When humans spew information at us unbidden, it’s boorish. When machines do it, it’s enticing. And there are a lot of opportunities for these encounters. Though you might assume search engines are mostly used to answer questions, some research has found that up to 40 percent of all queries are acts of remembering. We’re trying to refresh the details of something we’ve previously encountered.

but I don’t think it will hold in majority cases. Moreover, this is a case of misplaced example. It may also have happened when people used book Encyclopedias for researching a topic or read books in search of quotes etc but now that since Google will be providing us information in the first link that it generates, there is a very little chance that will be click on the second link or be moved to read something that we were not looking for. The instantaneous gratification that we expect from Google will ensure that we do not learn any new thing unintentionally.

I occasionally teach GMAT to local Kuwaiti kids who have been raised on calculators from young age. Some of these kids are totally incapable of adding triple digit numbers. When I do multiplications and/or divisions in front of them on whiteboard, its like I am teaching them Greek or rocketscience as it goes over their heads. These are no illiterates. They work in mostly financial institutions and are there to prepare for GMAT so that they can go to US or UK to do MBAs etc. Yet their brains after having not used that faculty for so long are no longer capable of doing those simple sums.

 

 

 

Internet and elusive search for truth

Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves. – Eric Hoffer

It was believed that with the advent and ubiquity of internet and the huge information resources that internet puts at everyone’s disposal, creation of propaganda will become hard as people will easily seek out truths and will easily separate fact from fiction. However, recent events have shown that is hardly the case. Moreover, the arrival of social media such as Facebook and Twitter actually adds to the problem.

This was most notable in Pakistan during the Elections 2013 season. Columns were fabricated under the names of well known columnists and political analysts and shared via email, Facebook and Twitter. In pre-Internet times such fake news stories or columns circulated as faded photocopies. Very few people had access to news archives to be able to verify themselves whether such news item or column was ever written.

Now newspapers have their archives online and all one has to do is to visit the newspaper website and verify for oneself if such a column or news item had ever appeared on its pages. If recent experience has taught us anything, no one makes the effort of doing so. Whereas in earlier cases, spreading such false information required us to expend money and energy by photocopying and then delivering such papers, now it can be just done with a simple click of send or share button.

However, Pakistani nation eventually caught up to it as shown by election results and the supporters of political party that were faking such news items and columns lost sympathy of these journalists.

In case of Pakistan, the propaganda remained affected or deceived the Pakistani population. Probably because it was being done by a few die hard media savvy supporters of a particular political party. However, recent coup and subsequent events have shown that if there is a state machinery and intelligentsia behind a propaganda campaign, one can almost fool the whole world.

The campaign against the incumbent president started by “Tamarod” (arabic for Rebelion) by claiming that they have collected 22 million signatures nationwide from people demanding that the president step down. Whereas doubts were raised about authenticity of the signatures or even the numbers, they weren’t taken seriously. June 30, 2013 was announced as a day of protest against the president. A large number of people did come out and it was reported by local media and subsequently picked up by international media that more than 30 million Egyptians are protesting against the government which was also claimed as largest number of people protesting together in history of the world. This was repeated so much by the protestors themselves and the local channels sympathetic to them that they started believing it themselves.

From BBC

Pro-coup claims of 30M people is “gross exaggeration” and “impossible”

It has been claimed that Egyptians staged the biggest uprising in history in the last few weeks. It has been claimed that 30 million people took to the streets.

“I think that’s a gross exaggeration,” says Middle East correspondent Wyre Davies, from Cairo. “I think nationwide there were millions of people this time protesting against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, but nothing like the 30 or 40 million people some people quoted. That’s 45% of the population – that’s impossible; there are too many young people in Egypt for the maths to work.”

So where has the figure of 30 million protesters come from? It’s difficult to find a source for it, or for any of the other estimates for that matter.

“What we saw last week was a military coup – there’s no two ways about it,” he says. “And therefore the only justification for that logically is that this was a popularly-backed military coup. So it’s in the interests of the people who supported the overthrow of the president to say that they had these millions of people supporting them.”

The BBC website above does not allow for comments. When the absurdity of such huge numbers protesting was pointed out on other websites or blog posts, the authors were branded as stooges of Muslim Brotherhood or USA who do not want to see Egyptians progress. Moreover, unless someone goes to the original source of the estimate and checks its credibility, it is very hard to verify the numbers.

Finally, award winning journalist Max Blumenthal does a deep dive and proves it the numbers were fabricated and social media was used to full affect to forward this.

People, power, or propaganda? Unraveling the Egyptian opposition

Among the first major Egyptian public figures to marvel at the historic size of the June 30 demonstrations was the billionaire tycoon Naguib Sawiris. On June 30, Sawiris informed his nearly one million Twitter followers that the BBC had just reported, “The number of people protesting today is the largest number in a political event in the history of mankind.” Sawiris exhorted the protesters: “Keep impressing…Egypt.”

Two days after Sawiris’ remarkable statement, BBC Arabic’s lead anchor, Nour-Eddine Zorgui, responded to a query about it on Twitter by stating, “seen nothing to this effect, beware, only report on this from Egypt itself.” Sawiris seemed to have fabricated the riveting BBC dispatch from whole cloth.

On June 30, one of the most recognisable faces of Egypt’s revolutionary socialist youth movement, Gigi Ibrahim, echoed the remarkable claim, declaring on Twitter, “I think this might be the largest protest in terms of numbers in history and definitely in Egypt ever!” Over 100 Twitter users retweeted Ibrahim, while a BBC dispatch reporting that only “tens of thousands of people [had] massed in Tahrir Square” flew below the radar.

Some Egyptian opponents to Morsi appear to have fabricated Western media reports to validate the crowd estimates. Jihan Mansour, a presenter for Dream TV, a private Egyptian network owned by the longtime Mubarak business associate Ahmad Bahgat, announced, “CNN says 33 million people were in the streets today. BBC says the biggest gathering in history.”

There is no record of CNN or BBC reporting any such figure. But that did not stop a former Egyptian army general, Sameh Seif Elyazal, from declaring during a live CNN broadcast on July 3, just as the military seized power from Morsi, “This is not a military coup at all. It is the will of the Egyptians who are supported by the army. We haven’t seen in the last — even in modern history, any country in the world driving 33 million people in the street for four days asking the president for an early presidential election.” CNN hosts Jake Tapper and Christian Amanpour did not question Elyazal’s claim, or demand supporting evidence.

Three days later, Quartet’s Middle East special envoy Tony Blair hyped a drastically different, but equally curious, crowd estimate. In an editorial for the Observer (reprinted by the Guardian), Blair stated, “Seventeen million people on the street is not the same as an election. But it is an awesome manifestation of people power.” The former UK Prime Minister concluded that if a protest of a proportionate size occurred in his country, “the government wouldn’t survive either.”

Like the massive crowd estimates, Tamarod’s signature counts were impossible to independently verify. Increasingly it appeared that the numbers were products of a clever public relations campaign, with the Egyptian army and its political supporters relying on the international press and Western diplomats to amplify their Mighty Wurlitzer.

As stated above, it is important to go to the original source to verify numbers, facts etc. Though CNN and BBC carried themselves quite respectively above, however, in these days of Breaking News and ratings game, even they can fall victim to such propaganda.

Osama bin Laden corpse photo is fake

An image apparently showing a dead Osama bin Laden broadcast on Pakistani television and picked up by British newspaper websites is a fake.

The bloodied image of a man with matted hair and a blank, half-opened eye has been circulating on the internet for the past two years. It was used on the front pages of the Mail, Times, Telegraph, Sun and Mirror websites, though swiftly removed after the fake was exposed on Twitter.

In addition, our searching habits and Google ensure that we continue to believe in the propaganda. In his book, Filter Bubble, Eli Parser makes a very convincing case that Google is our gatekeeper to the information. As such, we now see the world through Google. If Google chooses only to show us results skewed towards one viewpoint, it will be swaying our opinion on that issue towards that side. It is a very powerful power that Google exercises over us and we freely allow it to exercise it.

Moreover, in order to improve its search results, Google continuously strives to personalize the search results for us. As such, when we are logged in at our personal or office computer, through cookies Google has an idea of our tastes, viewpoints, location etc and throws up the results that it thinks we want to see. By showing us those results that it considers we are looking for, it plays a crucial role in reinforcing our beliefs about certain topics by not showing opposite opinions or showing them in further down the results list.

Google’s filtering systems, for example, rely heavily on Web history and what you click on (click signals) to infer what you like and dislike…. it’s that behavior that determines what content you see in Google News, what ads Google displays—what determines, in other words, Google’s theory of you.

…According to the New Republic’s Jon Chait, the answer lies with the media: “Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated.”

Even if Google does not engage in personalization, websites and activists by using such processes as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Google Bombing can ensure that for some search terms, certain results always appear on top thus creating a false image of websphere and consequently the world.

Whereas in theory Internet, social media and world’s most power search engine should have been making us better informed and bringing the world closer, the truth is that its actually quite an efficient medium to spread information and to reinforce our wrongly held notions.

 

The Surveillance State wants you to express yourself freely

Even the modern liberal state, like those of North America and Western Europe, wants us to be ourselves. It wants subversive and potentially dangerous people to reveal themselves through their habits and social connectionsEnglish: Facebook icon Español: Ícono de Facebook, not to slink away and hide in the dark. Repressing dissent and subversion does not eliminate them: the Stasi lost its efforts to control the East German people despite the enormous scale of its operations and the long-lasting damage it inflicted on both the observers and the observed. In the twenty-first-century liberal state, domination does not demand social or cultural conformity. The state, like every private firm that employs a sophisticated method of marketing, wants us to express ourselves—to choose—because mere expression of difference is usually both harmless and remarkably useful to the powerful.

Excerpted from “The Googlization of everything (and why we should worry)” , by Siva Vaidhyanathan

Don’t put your faith blindly in Google

Image representing Google Search as depicted i...

For example, if you search for “God” on Google Web Search, as I did on July 15, 2009, from my home in Virginia, you could receive a set of listings that reflect the peculiar biases of PageRank. The Wikipedia page for “God” ranks highest.

…The second result I generated is for something called “God.com,” sponsored by the Evangelical Media Group. It promises to recommend books that can answer questions such as “Why are there so many religions and which one is right?” In rural Virginia, this might be one of the more “relevant” results, because it clearly serves evangelical Protestant Christianity, which is the most significant religious community here. The page for God.com is free of clutter, and it must have many highly popular referrals. It’s thus well suited to Google’s standards for inclusion and high scoring with PageRank. But one would hope that in Cairo or Venice a different result would end up second behind Wikipedia’s entry for “God.”

The first page of my search results shows a limited range of sites, considering the wide array of possible references to “God” in the world. It includes a video of John Lennon singing his song “God” (a search for “Mother” also links to a video of the Lennon song of that name, however—above a link to Mother brand polishes and waxes). There are links to a number of atheistic sites, as well as a link to the Twitter feed of someone who calls himself “God.” There are no links to Islamic, Hindu, or Jewish sites, or even to Catholic sources. Here in Virginia, we are led to believe that the answers about God come from Wikipedia, evangelical Christianity, atheist sites, and John Lennon.

So the chief lesson here is not that Google is the cause of the problem: the lesson is that we are flawed. One of our flaws—which we recognize— is that we often lack the knowledge that we need to live our lives both happily and responsibly. We believe that Google offers a powerful way to overcome that flaw. But our faith in Google leaves us vulnerable to other flaws: the tendency to believe what we want to believe, and belief itself, the credulity that makes us functioning social beings and that sometimes can betray us. When we choose to rely blindly on a pervasive, powerful gatekeeper that we do not understand, we are destined to make monumental mistakes.

Excerpted from “The Googlization of everything (and why we should worry)” , by Siva Vaidhyanathan

Why should we be afraid of our online identities: Filter Bubble (Excerpt)

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Google’s filtering systems, for example, rely heavily on Web history and what you click on (click signals) to infer what you like and dislike. These clicks often happen in an entirely private context: The assumption is that searches for “intestinal gas” and celebrity gossip Web sites are between you and your browser. You might behave differently if you thought other people were going to see your searches. But it’s that behavior that determines what content you see in Google News, what ads Google displays—what determines, in other words, Google’s theory of you.
Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

The basis for Facebook’s personalization is entirely different. While Facebook undoubtedly tracks clicks, its primary way of thinking about your identity is to look at what you share and with whom you interact. That’s a whole different kettle of data from Google’s: There are plenty of prurient, vain, and embarrassing things we click on that we’d be reluctant to share with all of our friends in a status update. And the reverse is true, too. I’ll cop to sometimes sharing links I’ve barely read—the long investigative piece on the reconstruction of Haiti, the bold political headline—because I like the way it makes me appear to others. The Google self and the Facebook self, in other words, are pretty different people. There’s a big difference between “you are what you click” and “you are what you share.”

Both are pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are. “Information about our property, our professions, our purchases, our finances, and our medical history does not tell the whole story,” writes privacy expert Daniel Solove. “We are more than the bits of data we give off as we go about our lives.”

But the one-identity problem illustrates one of the dangers of turning over your most personal details to companies who have a skewed view of what identity is. Maintaining separate identity zones is a ritual that helps us deal with the demands of different roles and communities. And something’s lost when, at the end of the day, everything inside your filter bubble looks roughly the same. Your bacchanalian self comes knocking at work; your work anxieties plague you on a night out.

Excerpt From: Eli, Pariser. “The Filter Bubble.”

Corporate Social Responsibility is height of Collective Civic Irresponsibility

Whole Foods Market

As the state has retreated from responsibility to protect common resources, ensure access to opportunities, enforce worker and environmental protection, and provide for the health and general welfare of citizens, private actors have rushed in to claim the moral high ground in the marketplace. So, for instance, instead of insisting that farms grow safe food under environmentally sound conditions, we satisfy our guilt and concerns by patronizing stores like Whole Foods and celebrating the wide availability of organic products. Thus food that keeps people healthy and the earth livable remains available only to the well informed and affluent.

Because market fundamentalism declares that consumers have “choice” in the market, doing little or no harm becomes just another tactic by which vendors exploit a niche market. Consumers have become depoliticized, unable to see that personal choices to buy Timberland shoes (not made in sweatshops by children) and Body Shop cosmetics (not tested on animals) make no difference at all to the children and animals that suffer supplying the bulk of similar, less sensitively manufactured products to the vast majority of the world’s consumers. Feeling good about our own choices is enough. And instead of organizing, lobbying, and campaigning for better rules and regulations to ensure safe toys and cars for people everywhere, we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action. Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.

Since the 1980s, firms in the United States and Western Europe have found it useful to represent themselves as socially responsible. As states have retreated from their roles as protectors of the commons and mitigators of market failures, firms have found that trumpeting certain policies and positions puts them at an advantage in competitive markets, especially for consumer goods and services.

The problem, however, is that corporate responsibility is toothless. Corporations do—and should do—what is in the interests of their shareholders, and nothing more. We become aware of the voluntary benevolence of certain firms only when it is in their interest to make that benevolence known.

The principal reason why the idea of corporate responsibility appeals to us is that for thirty years, we have retreated from any sense of public responsibility—any willingness to talk about, identify, and pursue the public good. In the absence of the political will to employ state power to push all firms toward responsible behavior, the purported responsibility of one firm is quickly neutralized by the irresponsibility of the rest. Because we have failed at politics, we now rely on marketing to make our world better. That reliance is the height of collective civic irresponsibility. It’s a meaningless pose.

“The Googlization of Everything”, Siva Vaidhyanathan