Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Googling for Sociopaths

One of the best things about capitalism is the way it handles sociopaths. Major executives look up to Alexander the Great and apparently try to follow in his footsteps. But instead of leading a murderous campaign across Asia, they decide to make something people want: newspapers and movies and television shows. True, they’re far from perfect, but you have to admit it’s a lot better than mass slaughter.

Many books have been written about Google, even though we’re all pretty familiar with the company to begin with, but what makes Ken Auletta’s Googled interesting is that it’s a history of the company as told by the incumbent sociopaths. These are the people Auletta has spent his life covering: the media moguls who tried to acquire and conquer their own empires of content and delivery. And to them what’s most shocking and galling about Google’s incredibly rapid rise is that instead of being engineered by a fellow sociopath, it was largely done by normal, decent people plainly applying the forces of new technology.

“What has Google ever done for the world?” ask the sociopaths at various points throughout the book. “All they do is steal other people’s content!” To a normal human the question is ridiculous — it’s almost impossible to imagine life without Googling for something, checking your Gmail, or watching videos on YouTube — but sociopaths aren’t used to doing things that create value for people. They’re just interested in conquering more and taking control. When Disney bought ABC for $19 billion, it didn’t improve most people’s lives in any real way, but it did let Michael Eisner regain control of the company he once ran.

So naturally the sociopaths are outraged that their control is being taken away. Newspapers, book publishers, television companies, ad agencies — their businesses are all failing, while Google’s is on the rise. The sociopaths may be outraged, but this is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Most people don’t have a vested interest in whether ABC does well or even continues to exist. What they want are good television shows at a reasonable price, and if they can get those from Apple and Google instead of their local cable company, then bully for Apple and Google.

The thing that’s hard for the sociopaths to get their head around is that this isn’t because one of their rivals has outsmarted them — it’s just the march of technology. When the only way to get most television shows to people’s houses was over a wire or across airwaves that could only hold so many channels, their particular distribution model made sense. But when the same connection — whether cable, DSL, satellite, or WiFi — can let people download whatever video program they choose, an entirely new model can take hold. The shift isn’t Google’s fault any more than America should be blamed for breaking off from Pangea.

As a result, the closest people to moguls behind the recent shifts in media distribution are two computer science grad students: Larry and Sergey. These guys don’t even have the decency to behave like real moguls — they wear t-shirts and sneakers, get bored during meetings, and like to travel around the world instead of around Manhattan. What’s worse, they’re constantly talking about “making the world a better place” (by, for example, donating 1% of their profits to charity) and “empowering the user” (by cutting out middlemen and not forcing choices down people’s throats). Sociopaths don’t talk like that! Who do these people think they are?

Google gets a lot of criticism (often deserved), but it’s worth taking a moment to think of all the things they haven’t done. If Microsoft had Google’s market share in search, is there any doubt that they’d be systematically demoting or even banning their competitors in the search results? Demoting someone in Google is a virtual death sentence, and yet not only has Google never been accused of using this vast power, the idea itself is almost unimaginable.

Hearing things from the sociopaths’ perspective, it’s easy to get fooled. “Yeah!” you think. “Why should these Google guys get to control everything?” But for average people, this shift has been great: much more stuff is available, faster and freer than ever before, and the people making all the money off of it are actually decent human beings who feel some responsibility for the planet they inhabit. Sure, I don’t agree with them on everything and there’s a lot more they can do, but let’s not lose sight of the basic point: at least they’re not sociopaths.

You should follow me on twitter here.

December 14, 2009


Demotion in the rankings isn’t quite unthinkable:


posted by John Lindal on December 14, 2009 #

This site, run by Jewish-American journalists Phil Weiss, Adam Horowitz, and Max Blumenthal, lost its Google Ads and had its video taken off Google without sufficient explanation. http://mondoweiss.net/2009/06/dont-be-google.html

I think Prof. Lenz’ scepticism towards Google is the wiser option. http://k.lenz.name/LB/ Eternal vigilance and all that.

posted by Colin Jacobs on December 14, 2009 #

I seem to remember that when Wikipedia content started showing up in Google results mirror sites often had higher rating than wikipedia itself.

After a while this changed and now Wikipedia pretty well always outranks it’s mirrors. Did Google change the algorithm? Was it because some fan of wikipedia make a disparaging remark about the Google algorithm to a google techy? I suppose Jimbo Wales might have had a word with Sergey? Did wikipedias own rating just increase over time?

Lots of people are discriminated against by the Google algorithm every day and pretty near every one loves them for that because it nearly always picks the site we want and downgrades the site we don’t.

I want a make-up artist or a portrait photographer to discriminate on the grounds of skin colour.

posted by Joe on December 14, 2009 #

Google is NOT stealing anyone’s content. They’re just making it easier to find.

posted by Mike Cohen on December 14, 2009 #

“… [N]ot only has Google [n]ever been accused of using this vast power …”

Actually, yes they have. It doesn’t matter whether one agrees that the accusation is valid—the accusation has been made, on What’s Up With That among other places: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/02/google-trends-on-climategate-show-public-interest-increasing-but-troubling-questions-loom/

“Climategate” as a single word seems to be back among the suggested results, at least at the moment, but for quite a while it simply didn’t show up despite generating more than twenty-six million results if one insisted on searching for it. There’s been a great deal of concern in some circles over the potential for Google to act on a perceived or apparent liberal political bias.

posted by DB on December 14, 2009 #

Text so naive that it hurts. Plus, peppered with arrogance. This whole generation is lost. Good luck, world.

posted by Ronaldo Lui on December 14, 2009 #

Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

posted by Lina Inverse on December 14, 2009 #

From about Nov 24 to about Nov 28, Google hid the Google Suggest term “climategate” as documented here:


They then hid it again from about December 1 to about December 12.

I know because I tried it a couple of times per day, every day. During this time period, there were about 25,000,000 hits to the term “climategate,” give or take 5 million, each time a search was actually done. Today it sits at 21,000,000.

You may notice Al Gore sits on the board of directors of Google.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps a man’s “normal, decent people” are another man’s sociopaths?

posted by Xavier Itzmann on December 14, 2009 #

Promotion can be a form of demotion for others. Search Google for “Analytics” - the first entry is Google Analytics. OK, search Google for “email”. The first entry is Gmail. Really? Really? After all the years that email has been around, all the pages in the web, the first entry goes to… a Google property? OK, search “maps”. Google Maps, first entry. What a surprise. Go on, give it a spin. Google ends up first, every time. That seems very Microsoft to me.

Next head over to bing.com - search on “email”. First entry, after oafish sponsored links is: Yahoo Mail! How “un-Microsoft”! Search “video”. First result? Google video!

The rest of the text seems rather fanboi-ish, so no need to respond, but I did feel a need to point out what seems rather obvious: Google leverages its search dominance to promote…other Google services. VERY Microsoft thing to do.

posted by Cole on December 14, 2009 #

@DB: Trends rise and fall according to popularity. “Climategate” is a limited term used by a limited set of English speakers. After people find out it’s crap, it dropped. Also, if you look at how quoted text spreads across conservative blogs, you will see that some of Google’s tactics may hurt anything that propagates like splogs and spam. Quoted boilerplate text has to be deprecated in some way to keep Google relevant.

In any case, the criticisms are anecdotal. A genuine criticism will only come from a disgruntled Google employee who reveals some dirty deed or other.

posted by Bob Calder on December 15, 2009 #

You started goofing right from the beginning: Alexander the Great was not a sociopath.

posted by Simon on December 15, 2009 #

Ooooooooooh of course! Microsoft is evil! Google is not! Microsoft would be demoting search results! Google would never tamper with the almighty algorithm for political interests!

Unless… please compare: 1) http://tinyurl.com/ybjngcx 2) http://tinyurl.com/y9mymxr

posted by gregor samsa on December 15, 2009 #

Bob Calder: “Climategate” was a less limited term—twenty-six million hits at one point—than the alternatives Google did permit, “climate gate”and “climate-gate”, which were a few million each. My point wasn’t that it was a “limited term” or that it was “crap” (of which I am not convinced, although neither am I convinced it was not), my point was that the absolutist contention that Google had never been accused of malfeasance was in fact false. It has been accused.

As for the “anecdotal” thing, that’s kind of like “lies, damned lies, and statistics”; it’s all too easy to dismiss anything that way. Maybe you’re right, but it’s a dangerous contention in this day and age.

posted by DB on December 15, 2009 #


That is a word that Microsoft apologists project upon other people, to deflect attention from the fact that Microsoft users continue to run a platform that is shockingly technically inferior: the only one with viruses, the only one with commercial malware, the only one that lacks an ISO MPEG-4 player and a W3C HTML5 browser, the only one that lacks basic Unix networking security, the only one that is rated too insecure for online banking, the only one where the majority of users run a 10 year old version. Microsoft has hardly shipped any new products in the 21st century. You would have to be a fanboy to run Microsoft software in 2009. Users of other platforms and products always have an actual technical reason for running them, even if it’s just that their Windows failed after 6 months and they didn’t want to pay a guy $500 to resuscitate it (again) so they got a Mac.

but I did feel a need to point out what seems rather obvious: Google leverages its search dominance to promote…other Google services. VERY Microsoft thing to do.

No, you have it wrong. The issue is not Google promoting Google or Microsoft promoting Microsoft; every company does that. In fact, it may be required of them if they are a public company, because it’s COMPETITIVE behavior. They should not even ship a product if they do not think it is the best in class, worthy of every promotional effort they can make.

The issue with Microsoft is ANTI-COMPETITIVE behavior, which unfortunately, few people actually understand, probably you also, and they take it to mean “very competitive.” It’s not. Competitive is when you work twice as hard to become a better figure skater than your competition; anti-competitive is when you pay a guy to knock your figure skating competition in the knees with a pipe.

There are thousands of examples of Microsoft’s unique anti-competitive behavior. The latest is their offer to pay publishers to block all search engine indexing but Microsoft’s. They also threatened many times to kill MS Office Mac even though it has always been highly profitable (for 24 years now, longer than Windows has existed) in order to exert leverage over Apple instead of competing with them. Microsoft’s browser is not Web-compatible, it’s Microsoft-compatible, in order to force publishers to create IE apps that only run on Windows instead of Web apps that run everywhere.

By contrast, Google doesn’t stop you from using Yahoo or other to search the Web; Google’s Search and Maps are as much a part of Apple iPhone as they are Google Android; Google’s browser is HTML5 compatible, not Google-compatible, so even if I make a Web app for Google Chrome, it also runs in Safari, Firefox, and Opera, and in IE-with-Chrome-Frame. Google’s Chrome Frame makes IE into a competitive browser, it’s anti-anti-competitive.

So I think the author of this article is correct in saying that Google is not playing the same game as Microsoft. They don’t have to because they are confident in their ability to compete based on their past history of competing, and because they are focused on what they are doing and building, not what others are doing and building. Microsoft is a different animal, no history of winning through competition, always focused on what others are doing and copying it and then trying to kill the original, and absolutely no idea what time it is now or what time it will be a few years from now.

posted by Hamranhansenhansen on December 15, 2009 #

Yup, read Googled and had the same reaction. It’s just so bitter…

posted by derrick on December 15, 2009 #

Absolute bunk. Google are sociopaths, because they wrest control of IP away from IP owners. Sure many IP owners are evil, but authors, musicians, photographers and the rest are also having their life’s work devalued and removed from their control by some of the things Google does.

It’s not just media titans (although I can see the appeal of attacking a teeny minority that are easy to dislike to make a buck selling a book about them) who deserve criticism, but anyone who removes the profit motive from a person’s life’s work for their own financial gain.

Google ain’t a charity.

And, how about those Chinese dissidents Google sold out to the communist regime? Talk about sociopathic behavior.

Hey, where can I get this Sociopath book for free? Anyone got a URL to the pirated version?


posted by Eric on December 15, 2009 #

Unfortunately, the original post appears to be use the term “sociopath” incorrectly. Sociopaths are usually liars, impulsive, and have few long term relationships. Alexander the Great was not a sociopath. Most leaders can’t be, because they need a long term plan, and can’t lie or be impulsive, because that ruins relationships.

posted by Tom on December 15, 2009 #

Wow, what a wave of criticism in the comments! Of course its not black & white … but i think at the core Aaron is right. Of course G. have their own profit, benefit and interests on their agenda. They would be mad if they didn’t! But its not as simple as that, their “mission” is much more complex than other company’s. Thanks for the reminder.

posted by Michael on December 15, 2009 #

I bought the book following your link to Amazon. Do you get any credit for that?

posted by Seth russell on December 15, 2009 #

“Demoting someone in Google is a virtual death sentence, and yet not only has Google never been accused of using this vast power, the idea itself is almost unimaginable.”

The few months I was involved in a lawsuit I had about 4000 hits a day average on my website. The plaintiff starting using SEO’s to optimize searches for his company that I had complained about. Then the plaintiff specifically bought keywords that related to my site - even my name and my domain name.

After all of this went down - my hit total had diminished to about 500 a day. (Yet I still have 4 articles that rank VERY high in search results)

Google DOES allow systematic demotion at their own profit - to anyone that’s willing to pay. They aren’t accused - they practice, they preach, they perform, they promote this very scenario.

posted by fixyourthinking on December 15, 2009 #

There is doubt that Microsoft would systematically demote rivals. There would clearly be lawsuits, the outcome would be clear; Microsoft generally don’t create problems for themselves like that.

Your base idea for the post appears to be some systematic division between sociopaths and everybody else. I think that’s tenuous and requires justification.

posted by no on December 16, 2009 #

” There would clearly be lawsuits, the outcome would be clear; Microsoft generally doesnt create problems like that.”

Have you heard/read about the European lawsuits? They’ve been fined 2+ BILLION for imbedding their browser into their OS - in Europe only. In the US where they lobby and have political influence, they get a way with it. Some have said ( including MS) that they do it “for the benefit of the people” by keeping costs low for the consumer. If that were the case, then the US govt should only have one carmaker, one sports owner, one TV station, one newspaper etc. Granted Bill Gates ( and I think his father) were smart about licensing MS-DOS thru Windows 7 , but the only way to retain customers (in their view) has been to have a hook into the software. only THEY can reverse engineer every piece of software written - since they have the key. Remember when disks couldn’t break the 2gb barrier ? Stac Electronics had software that would compress data on the drive. It was very complicated and MS could not decode the math. They “partenered ” with Stac - for about 2 weeks. Then they told Stac to go away. Stac sued and won. Yeah it cost MS some money in the lawsuit but they didn’t care - it did away with the competition.


MAC, Netscape, Lotus 1-2-3, Wordperfect, every one copied. It’s their EGO not benevolence that makes them want it. It kept their lock on the consumer.

On the other hand, Google ( and Yahoo) have no direct cost to the consumer. ( now if you wanted to say their after the business market, that’s another topic.

posted by bobb on December 21, 2009 #

Why should these Google guys get to control everything? I have heard complaints from the content providers and agree with the concept - were it not for the providers Goggle wouldn’t exist. BUT , by the same token, WITHOUT Google that newspaper’s website wouldn’t have gotten the 50,000 hits received from Google directing inquiring users there.

posted by yeah but on December 21, 2009 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.