Last weekend, in what the BBC clearly regarded as important news, the corporation announced that its media editor, Amol Rajan, had been granted an interview with Sundar Pichai, the current CEO of Alphabet (which basically means Google). It was billed as “the first of a series of interviews with global figures”. If the boss of Google counts as a global figure, one wonders who else is on the list, the CEO of ExxonMobil?
And the takeaway from watching this encounter? Simply this: Mr Pichai is a nice guy. He comes from a modest background in India, dropped out of Stanford in the time-honoured manner, has an MBA from Wharton and has worked for Google since 2004. He’s been CEO of Google (and Alphabet, its holding company) since 2015.
So sometimes nice guys finish first? In that respect, Pichai looks a lot like Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, who was the unlikely successor to the mercurial Steve Jobs. What both men have in common is that they worked in relatively obscure roles that were absolutely critical to ensuring the runaway success of their respective employers. Cook was the man who built the manufacturing and logistics systems that enabled Apple to continually create and deliver outstanding products, on time and budget. Pichai, for his part, oversaw or was involved in the development of Google Chrome, Chrome OS, Google Drive, Gmail, Google Maps, the Android operating system and the Chromebook. Both men have also overseen the growth of their companies into trillion-dollar behemoths.
The interview was a classic mainstream media production. Rajan had done the kind of homework that big-time reporters do, right down to reading Henry Kissinger’s musings on the subject of artificial intelligence. “I want to find out,” he declared at the beginning, “who he [Pichai] actually is, apply some proper scrutiny to Google’s power, and understand where technology is taking all of us.” It turns out that he and Pichai both have family in Tamil Nadu and are obsessed with cricket. In the end they even managed to have a cod cricket game in which Rajan tried to bowl a googly at the boss of Google. So they’re both nice guys, got on like a house on fire and told us absolutely nothing.
Like I said: a classic mainstream media treatment of tech. The BBC’s media editor wanted to find out “where technology is taking all of us”. He is thus a native speaker of the narrative of tech determinism – the view that technology drives history and the role of society is simply to mop up afterwards and adjust to the new reality. It is also, incidentally, the narrative that the tech companies have assiduously cultivated from the very beginning, because it usefully diverts attention from awkward questions about human agency and whether democracies might have ideas about which kinds of technology are tolerable or beneficial and which not.
A second feature of mainstream media’s approach to the industry is the valorisation of the bosses of big companies, which chimes nicely with the “founder worship” that is an article of faith in Silicon Valley. Now that some of the founders of the tech giants (Jobs, Gates, Bezos, Page and Brin) have stepped down or left the stage we are left with their more muted successors (Cook, Satya Nadella, Andy Jassy and Pichai, respectively). These bear a closer resemblance to normal human beings than their predecessors but, in a strange way, are more difficult subjects to interview because they deflect tough questioning more easily.
In this respect, Pichai proved himself to be an accomplished batsman. Asked about the significance of “AI” (interpreted, as usual, as a polite term for machine learning), he declared that it was like fire or electricity and would play a “foundational role pretty much across every aspect of our lives”. Asked to give examples, he burbled that it could come up with “that perfect playlist for you”, enabling you to “be your own DJ”. Oh, and it could also help radiologists looking for things such as tumours. Rajan nodded approvingly.
It went on like this. Q: Tech companies employ almost nobody compared with their enormous revenues? A: Ah, yes, but think of all the small businesses we enable. And ex-Googlers have set up more than 4,000 companies. Q: Can Google ever be too big? A: Oftentimes there is value in being big because then you can do bigger things. On tax avoidance, Rajan mentioned that in 2017 Google moved $23bn through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda (where taxes are zero). Would Pichai give an undertaking not to use tax havens from now on? Pichai: “We don’t use that tax structure any more and we moved our IP [intellectual property] out of Bermuda already.”
As the show closed with the two sharing a friendly elbow-bump, one could almost hear the Google PR team saying: “Well, that went well, didn’t it?” while back in Shepherd’s Bush (or wherever the BBC now hangs out) it would have been trebles all round. Job well done; now for the next “global figure”. But back at his humble ranch this licence fee payer was wondering: when are we ever going to get some “proper scrutiny” of the companies that now dominate our networked world?
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