Google's brilliant salesmen

Google became a verb some time ago, through its suite of services it’s now graduated to being an ent

Having just celebrated their tenth anniversary, the boys at the big G have been so busy doing no evil of late, it’s becoming difficult to keep track.

In the last week or so, Google has launched a new web browser, version 3 of its image management software (with face recognition), sent a satellite into orbit (part financed by the DoD) to take pictures for use in Google Maps, filled in some of that pesky missing data on the map of Georgia and provided some tech-infrastructure for the Republican National Convention.

In all of this activity one of the initiatives that has been less reported is the announcement that they are stepping up the newspaper digitisation programme, which started back in 2006. The main development is the addition of full facsimile images of print pages, searchable and reproduced on screen using a very elegant browser-based reader. This gives an enriched account of the reported news of the time, contextualised by the advertising and print design of the day… At least, that’s if you can find something. There’s a very limited set of records available so far, although what there is proves compelling. The experience of seeing the microfiche translated to the browser is hugely seductive, and one could be tempted to sit back and breathe a sigh of relief that this is another element of your intellectual and professional life that you’ll soon be able to outsource to those well-meaning boys on the West Coast.

With an antitrust suit brewing around the proposed Yahoo! Deal (which could result in Google controlling (80 per cent of the online advertising market) it’s easy to be distracted from the monopolies which Google are already creating. Major universities are outsourcing their email to gMail, Google Apps is providing free groupware software for major organisations, tools such as the News archive are revolutionising the way in which research can be carried out and they are sole custodians of personal data the likes of which governments and credit agencies only dream of holding. But whilst the chirpy altruism of Page and Brin has propelled the company from student project through ten years of startling growth, the ‘no evil’ mantra surely can’t sustain it for a great deal longer. Even disregarding the concerns of the fiscal monopoly, we are becoming intellectually and professionally dependent on this extraordinary company. Google became a verb some time ago, through its suite of services it’s now graduated to being an entire workplace.

Google are software pioneers changing the landscape of the way we work and learn, but we shouldn’t forget what their business model and only major revenue stream is. They are brilliant ad-salesman.

Happy birthday Google!

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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