Thursday, October 04, 2012

Helping Google Find Sensibility

Regarding the latest attack on the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, Google has certainly acted as if Muslims do not matter. It has arrogantly refused to remove the offending content from the YouTube site that it owns. The offensive video, the reactions to it and the reactions to reactions have generated lot of heated debates.

Could it have been avoided?
Many have observed that the offensive video remained un-noticed for fifty-five days. Then curiosity traffic increased the hit count from five thousand to five million in a couple of days. Obviously ignoring it would have been a better option. That is true, as far as it goes. In the initial stage the best option was to ignore it. However those who profit from such offensive material also know this. They tried to get negative publicity in Rushdie affair, they tried it now and they will try it again. They will rub it in your face until there is a reaction. And when that happens, just wishing that there had been no reaction is not going to help us solve the problem.

What Makes Google Tick?
The question arises, why Google must rub it in our face? Google would not allow the freedom to insult to its own employees in its offices that it says we must learn to live with. Why? Why can’t it see reason? The answer lies in its very nature. It is a corporation---impersonal and amoral. You cannot plead with it on the basis of morality, decency, or sensibility. It does not understand the language of right and wrong or good and evil. It could not care less about the Prophets. It only cares about its profits. Right and wrong translate into profit and loss in its world. It would enforce a code of behavior and decorum in its offices because that is needed for ensuring productivity. It upholds the exact opposite on its sites because that is good for business. If it can increase its profits by inflicting pain on us it will gladly do that. If it sees that doing so reduces its profits, it will “find” that inflicting pain is wrong and insulting the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, is immoral.

And it has been very successful.
Last year Google had revenues of nearly $40 billion. Ninety-six percent of these came from ads. And its claim to fame in the advertizing world is that it has revolutionized advertizing by providing targeted ads: Ads that are delivered to each viewer based on the personal preferences and interests of that viewer. Both the AdWords and AdSense programs that it uses are based on information about the users that it gathers and stores through their use of its free services.

It has a huge database about everyone who uses it and it uses that database to generate money. Every time you search for something using it, it learns something about your interests. It knows how to translate that information into hard cash because it can find the right buyers for that information. Every time you click on a Google ad, you are simply sending a check to Google as ad revenues are on a per click basis. It may be a fraction of a cent per click. But trillions of clicks turn into billions of dollars. In other words every time you use it you are financially supporting it and nurturing its arrogance.

It is our clicks that make Google tick.
Therein lies the secret to making it see reason. If most of us stop using Google even for one week, it will see such a huge shrinking of its revenue stream that it would find sensibility and decency faster than its fastest searches. It would immediately stop any and all insulting content if that happened.

Google Ads
A second but related area of our concern should be the otherwise responsible and serious websites that allow Google ads. When a web site agrees to allow Google to display ads on it, it gives them a blank space over which they can write the message they want. Google gets money from the ad sponsors for these directed ads and passes a fraction of that money to the site owner. For that fraction many “Islamic” sites are selling their iman. One can find a site hosting a lecture on Qur’an and Hadith and on the same page a Google ad displays a semi nude picture. Sometimes this blurring of the boundaries of the sacred and the profane is justified by the owners by issuing a disclaimer that they are not responsible for the ads. In most cases even the disclaimer is not there. As an example Pakistani Newspapers like Jang and Ummat frequently have obscene ads consisting of pictures of nude and semi nude women on their sites.

That such scandalous behavior has become acceptable is an indication of the toll that our blind submission to the Internet revolution has taken on us. For thinking people this should be cause for much reflection and soul searching. This calls for a new level of media activism that has been totally missing from the Muslim world. Isn’t it time that someone convinced the owners of such sites to stop allowing such ads?

Is It Futile?
There are those for whom all this talk is futile. In Google they see just an innocent search engine not a cold calculating advertizing giant that is also serving a cultural agenda, about which we may have some concerns. In the Internet and the media revolution they see only wonders.

It is part of a larger malaise in our attitudes about technology that we have been seeing for the past couple of centuries. In the 19th century the British introduced science and technology in the subcontinent through exhibitions for the public. The idea was not to educate but to impress. It was presented as magic. At an exhibition in Calcutta in the early 1800s the visitors were reported to make such comments as “Bap rey bap (Oh My!)…How fantastic.” 

It seems we have not stopped saying “Bap rey bap… How fantastic.”

Once we come out of this spell, we may realize that technology both gives and takes away. And the resulting bargain will be in our favor only if we are actively negotiating with it instead of passively submitting to it. A cell phone magically can connect you to another person on the other part of the globe without any visible link. Yet it also disconnects you from your immediate surroundings. We see that in the horrible acts of insolence when people even in the Haram making tawaf are talking over their cell phones.

Once we determine that technology should be our servant and not our master, our attitudes about it will change dramatically. And so will our attitudes about the technology leaders. We may then realize that Google’s declared goal is to “change the world.” Can anyone in their right mind advocate that we should just be a passive spectator as they go about changing our world?

Of course in the latest episode Google is betting that our love for the convenience it offers is greater than our love for the Prophet and our sense of honor. And not even convenience but only addiction. For there are a dozen search engines like Bing out there that we could use without sacrificing anything.

It is only through our determined individual and collective efforts that we can convince the likes of Google, Facebook, and others to agree to a code of ethics that assures freedom from insults for everyone--- which is the only way to ensure peace in the global village.
Khalid Baig in Albalaqh. Here

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