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9 October 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 5:59am

When Julian Assange went head to head with Google

For Julian Assange, Google is all but an arm of the US state department. For the company’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg, an adviser to its CEO, Larry Page, Google is the model of the 21st-century company.

By Bryan Appleyard

When Google Met Wikileaks
Julian Assange
OR Books, 224pp,p £10

How Google Works
Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg with Alan Eagle
Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £25

Google is the emblematic internet company. All of the others are, in various ways, specialised. Apple is a high-end gadget-maker, Facebook and Twitter are social networkers and Microsoft is the bewildered dinosaur. But Google is all things to all clickers. It is, for the moment, the internet.

Its mission statement (“. . . to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) in effect makes that claim. The projected style of the company – more loose and freewheeling than Apple, less narrow in scope than Facebook – creates a mood of cool, go-anywhere, do-anything excitement. Google acquires and announces products seemingly at random and indulges in experimentation (like its self-driving car) as if just for the hell of it.

In truth, nothing is random or freewheeling. More than 90 per cent of Google’s revenues come from advertising. These ads are sold and targeted on the basis of the information the company acquires, overwhelmingly without payment, from its users. We are its product; our information is its asset base. There is nothing inherently wrong or sinister about this. Tactically, however, it is better for Google to be seen as a technology company rather than a seller of advertising space.

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These books add new layers to the ambiguity. For Julian Assange, Google is all but an arm of the US state department (or, indeed, vice versa). For the company’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg, an adviser to its CEO, Larry Page, Google is the model of the 21st-century company.

Assange’s account is funnier and faster. It is written like a hammy thriller and, narcissist that he evidently is, the author is the hero. The Schmidt-Rosenberg book is a jaunty but dull read if you are not a tech entrepreneur, though, with patience, it becomes fascinating even if you’re not.

When Google Met WikiLeaks is, from one perspective, a masterly comedy of misunderstanding that should be taken up by the Coen brothers. It is about a meeting that took place in June 2011 at Ellingham Hall, in Norfolk, where Assange was then confined by order of a British court. This was at the height of the storm following the Wiki­Leaks release of a vast amount of secret data supplied by the American soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. As this was all about information, Google wanted to know more and it asked for a meeting.

The book includes a transcription of the ensuing interview of Assange by Schmidt; Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas; Scott Malcomson, said to be the editor of a “brilliant” book that Schmidt and Cohen intended to write; and Lisa Shields, Schmidt’s then partner. The dynamics of the encounter are pretty clear. The Google team is “rinsing” Assange for information, while Assange is talking freely and eagerly about WikiLeaks policies and technologies. He comes across as a very clever man but he did not see that nothing in Google’s agenda aligned with his. Now, he ruefully acknowledges that he should perhaps have been aware that three of his four visitors – Cohen, Malcomson and Shields – had state department connections.

The ensuing book by Schmidt and Cohen, The New Digital Age, was a bleak, self-serving and intellectually perverse account of the future, much admired by the likes of Tony Blair and Richard Branson, which showed no sympathy whatsoever for Assange’s ideology of total information transparency. It was, in his view, nothing more than state department propaganda. By now trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he was incandescent. “I waited for the stringent criticism the book would receive,” he writes. “But none came.”

This is untrue – I pretty much trashed the book in the Sunday Times – but Assange’s rage is indiscriminate. He compensated for (as he would say) the lickspittles of the world press by writing a long review in the New York Times, also reproduced here, calling the book “a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism”. I don’t agree with much of what Assange says and I mistrust his narcissism but that sounds about right.

Where The New Digital Age was a geo­political policy document for the murmuring classes, How Google Works is a blueprint for all would-be makers of 21st-century companies. “We mean you, entrepreneur,” write the authors, jabbing their fingers at the reader. Like many similar management books, it is Maoist in its determination to extirpate the past. Throughout the book, the message is that what is being proposed here is absolutely new and has nothing to do with what Google’s co-founder Larry Page calls in his foreword “prevailing ‘wisdom’ ”. Note the deadly quote marks. It is also Maoist in its celebration of a new hero class – the “smart creatives”. A smart creative is, apparently, “a fire hose of ideas” and ideally should possess 11 attributes including being “user smart”, “risky creative” and “open creative”. These fabulous elites will be very well paid – smart creatives are in a global seller’s market – and expected to scorn the comfortable platitudes of the work-life balance. Sure, they can see the kids once in a while but . . .

Managing the future requires managing smart creatives or, rather, giving them their freedom, as they don’t really need management as such. Here, we come up against one of the slippery contradictions that so annoyed me about The New Digital Age. On the one hand, everything is free and democratic among the smart creatives; on the other, “Meetings should have a single decision-maker/owner.” The latter suggests that the old “wisdom” isn’t quite so useless.

I am being slightly unfair to the book because it is, willy-nilly, a handy guide to how the world is understood by the technocrats. For example, the old managerial target of achieving growth has been overturned in favour of “scaleability”, a more innovative concept defined by the way in which new technologies seem to invent rather than discover markets. Mere money is also downgraded. It is no longer the lifeblood of companies. Information is at least as – or more – important. This may explain why there is so little in this book about how Google actually makes money, or it may be that the uncoolness of advertising is the problem.

Ethically, Schmidt and Rosenberg, to borrow from Evelyn Waugh, create a sea of unease on which they float with log-like calm. China issues are explained as an unconditional vindication of the company motto (“Don’t be evil”) and Prism – an NSA surveillance programme with which Assange suggests Google and other tech companies may have been involved – is not mentioned. Clearly, privacy is an attribute of the old “wisdom” that will have to be eliminated by smart creative cadres. But this is history written, for the moment, by the victors and a little light Photoshopping is to be expected.

So has Google earned the ire of Assange? First, he was naive to expect fair or favourable treatment. He is any capitalist’s nightmare and, although Google may present itself as a new type of company, in many respects it is an old-style one. It is Wall Street-dependent and close to government, partly through conventional lobbying and partly through a joint interest in amassing information. It used to be unremarkable to say that the interests of General Motors and those of the US were aligned. It should be equally unremarkable to say the same of Google and the Obama administration.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but plainly it could be and it is here that Assange is on relatively solid ground. Schmidt and Cohen did use him rather ruthlessly and misrepresented him at certain points in their book. Furthermore, Google’s power – as demonstrated, embarrassingly, by the ease with which it can walk, carefree and practically tax-free, into Downing Street – is disturbing, unaccountable and, increasingly, global. “Technocratic imperialism” is a substantial charge.

In the end, however, this is an asymmetrical battle. Google sails on regardless and will do for some years to come. Assange, meanwhile, is his own worst enemy, thanks to his imperiousness and scratchy personality. His ideology is utopian and unrealistic and his distinction between good humans and bad society is incoherent. He represents a form of extremism that has some value as a corrective to the abuses of the powerful but that must inevitably be self-defeating.

Google’s weakness is more subtle and it lies in the sheer abstraction of its ideology. “We see most big problems as information problems,” it says. This is like saying we have a hammer and, therefore, everything is a nail. Unless you expand the definition of “information” to the point where it means nothing, it is precisely wrong. Reality is neither that simple nor that biddable. There was, in short, more than one kind of naivety at Ellingham Hall.

Follow Bryan Appleyard on Twitter: @bryanappleyard

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