Google should spotlight and respond to critics of Sundar Pichai and other Silicon Valley chiefs — not bury the complaints

Indian window -- photograph by Amita Chatterjee

Indian window — photograph by Amita Chatterjee

Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

— Léon Bloy (1846-1917)

Better than suppressing criticism of Google’s new chief executive, Sundar Pichai — as Google seems to have been doing in some recent search rankings — would be answering the critics in a public debate. That would give Pichai-backers a chance for a friendly counteroffensive, listing all the reasons why his appointment is so hopeful for all unreconstructed idealists.

Though we have yet to come across any personal attacks on him, there has been angry murmuring in certain quarters about Indian leaders of Silicon Valley companies, lumping them together as selfish elitists. For two or three days after the announcement earlier this month about the Tamil Nadu-ite who had landed at Google’s pinnacle, a post by one Wajahat Qazi — described in his Twitter bio as ‘a former senior policy analyst’ in the part of Kashmir governed by India — persistently appeared in search engine results at or near the top of links offered for inquiries under the new tech star’s name. Then, it all but vanished: his Pichai-focused screed on FirstPost.com — ‘Fading American dream: Sundar Pichai is a metaphor for a new kind of elitism in US’ — did not appear on the first page of Google offerings for queries using Qazi’s name. Even if it sank partly because the words of writers and bloggers with larger followings were rising, it does not seem likely that its displacement was unassisted by colleagues and friends of Pichai’s, like the tweeter in the screen shot below.

What is Qazi’s objection to Pichai and other successful Indian techies? That’s hard to say, exactly, because his post is somewhat incoherent, as if written in a furious rush, and strikingly self-contradictory. He praises Pichai lavishly, then condemns him for belonging to ‘a new class of people: the nouveau elite who are the children of the marriage between technology and liberalism [… that … ] owes no real allegiance to any state, nation or culture …’. He is apparently protesting on behalf of the “average” white young man from the South’ who ‘would perhaps naturally vent out his frustration at the brown, Indian ‘geek’ or techie for the loss of status and employment opportunities.’

Actually, white- and blue-collar workers shut out of the great Silicon Valley casino are envious and resentful across the entire U.S. and probably most of the globe, as Qazi does point out. The local resentment, especially in San Francisco, now at the northern limit of Silicon Valley, makes the most sense — for the reasons set out in ever more frequent reports about consequences of missing public services or public services strapped for cash, beneath headlines like the one for Debra Saunders’ 9 August piece in The San Francisco Chronicle: San Francisco’s summer of urine and drug-addicted homeless’. ‘How bad is the urine situation in San Francisco?,’ the piece began. ‘Monday night, a light pole corroded by urine collapsed and crashed onto a car, narrowly missing the driver. … Prosperity has produced a building boom — so there are fewer vacant spaces where the homeless can burrow.’

Facts and events like these are shocking enough in themselves. And there are few other places with so many physical, sensory reminders that economic inequality in America is greater than in any other rich country. Silicon Valley, as a whole — with all its native-born Americans, immigrants and highly skilled temporary workers with H-1B visas — could be accused of a callous detachment from economic hardship on its doorstep and everywhere else.

But it’s clear from detailed reports about encounters with Pichai — especially from an excellent interview by Dieter Bohn of TheVerge.com last May — that Qazi could not have made a poorer choice of target — or ‘metaphor for this new elitism’:

Bohn: Is there anything personally important to you that you wish Google as a whole were doing more of?

Pichai: The thing that attracted me to Google and to [the] internet in general is that it’s a great equalizer. I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, [whether] you were a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard.

I want Google to strive to do that — not just build technology for certain segments. For me, it matters that we drive technology as an equalizing force, as an enabler for everyone around the world.

Incidental descriptions of Bohn’s like this make that commitment credible:

Pichai is thoughtful and friendly in person, nodding carefully as he listens and then responding with real empathy. After the first day of I/O, I watched as Pichai walked into the hungry press gaggle, giving everybody who approached him equal attention. Amidst the tumult, he even sought me out to finish a conversation we’d had the previous week.

Last year, techie sites like 9to5mac.com gleefully quoted the gentle and restrained answer Pichai gave Bloomberg.com, when asked about the Apple leader Tim Cook’s description of the security designed into Google’s Android technology for mobile devices as a ‘toxic hell stew’ – obviously, by comparison with his own company’s comparatively flawless iPhone and its siblings. Apple, Pichai said, set its products’ price tags so high that it could afford to commission custom components (chip-sets) for elegant solutions to technical dilemmas — whereas Google had to make do with off-the-shelf parts to keep prices low for its volks phones:

“It must be liberating [for Apple] to wake up and think about your device, your software, and hey, ‘I can even call the chipset guys and say what the chip should be,’” he says. “I have to think about building a platform and bringing as many people along on this journey and getting it right. I believe that ultimately it’s a more powerful approach, but it’s a lot more stressful as well.”

You have to be careful when you make a $100,000 Mercedes car not to look at rest of automotive industry and make comments on it… We serve the entire breadth of the market, globally across all form factors, et cetera. Android from the ground up is designed to be very, very secure… History shows typically that malware is also targeted at the more popular operating system. So you know there is that.

In January, when only Silicon Valley insiders knew that Pichai was being groomed for his promotion to the top, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posed an unusually interesting question: can people be made more empathetic?

One of his observations was that ‘affluence insulates us from need … Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas.’

Pichai does not seem to be one of those who forget all about growing up relatively poor — as virtually every recent story about him has emphasized — or about the infinitely greater poverty than his family’s, in India’s underclasses. Nor would he need the reminder in the last sentence of the Kristof meditation on empathy: ‘Above all, let’s remember that compassion and rationality are not effete markers of weakness, but signs of civilization.’

It is not inconceivable that someone exactly like him could become the influential conscience Silicon Valley needs.

In the meanwhile, it’s important to let the Wajahat Qazis have their say — rant, if they must.

sundar pichai supporter tweet

Sundar Pichai, Silicon Valley’s new technology star: wondrously un-grok-able by Westerners looking at him in rear-view mirrors angled on roots

Sundar Pichai 3 YouTube discussion Screen Shot postgutenberg@gmail.com

Where, if not in India, would an authority on the childhood of a technology superstar be interviewed with a garlanded guru and personal shrine at his back? Tamil TV screenshot, postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 17.09.22

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A Heinlein, 1961

 

A pity that someone from Madras — known as Tamil Nadu, now — is stripped of the special qualities that tie him to one of the most extraordinary parts of India, a country hundreds of times more colourful and gloriously bizarre than any other. This is what media coverage – in India’s English-language press as much as anywhere else – has done to Google’s new chief executive, Sundar Pichai, born and brought up in the southeastern state of Tamil-speakers.

Diligent reporting for biographical sketches in, for instance, The Times of India, has supplied the impressive details of his rise from the middle-classes — a long way from the poverty of the Indian masses, yet far enough from a life of Western privilege and ease to be deemed a ‘moonshot,’ Google’s term for ambitious, risky, work-in-progress expected to take more than ten years to bear results.

But in what kind of cultural soil were his roots – being widely characterized as ‘humble’ – fed and watered? Nothing in what we have read so far in news analysis offers the tiniest glimpse of what is most fascinating about Pichai’s home state. Its culture has been ignored or edited out, as if in the Indian call-centre tradition in which a sparkling customer service representative assisting a faraway English-speaker says, ‘Hi, this is Brad, how can I help you?’ — when his real name is P. K. Gopinath, and his consonants are so deliciously guttural in the classic Tamil way that you imagine him speaking to you with the shimmering Bay of Bengal for a backdrop.

What is unusual about Tamil Nadu? Jottings:

From a New York Times profile last month of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the state’s best-loved politician — a former chief minister and actress, now general secretary of the ruling political party, the A.I.A.D.M.K. — and revered by many Tamils as a personal deity (Rollo Romig, 1 July 2015):

When Jayalalithaa set up a tent on Marina Beach and fasted publicly for 80 hours in protest of interstate water policy, thousands joined her. At every letdown, it seemed, A.I.A.D.M.K. supporters tried to set themselves on fire. Several Jayalalithaa skeptics told me that they doubt her party members care for her at all. They just know that mad acts of political theater are how things get done in Tamil Nadu.

… So is Tamil Nadu chaotic, an economic basket-case … ? Think again:

You would think that given all this emotional mayhem, Tamil Nadu would be a mess, but in fact it’s one of the best-run states in India. Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, in their book ‘‘An Uncertain Glory,’’ an analysis of economic development in India, single out Tamil Nadu as a paragon of administrative innovation among Indian states, ranking it best in the country for the quality of its public services. Under Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi’s governance, Chennai has gained a reputation as the Detroit of India (in the car-manufacturing-hub sense, not in the bankrupt-and-abandoned sense).

None of that is any more unlikely than the life of the state’s most famous mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan — the subject of a book reviewed on this blog. As noted there, Ramanjuan’s mathematical discoveries in the early 20th century have been used in polymer chemistry, crystallography, string theory, computer science and cancer research. Even so,

 … a former accountant-general of Madras … remembered Ramanujan telling him that in dreams in which he saw the male consort of [the goddess] Namagiri, ‘scrolls containing the most complicated mathematics used to unfold before his eyes.’ He shows how dream interpretation, palmistry and astrology influenced crucial decisions with which Ramanujan wrestled. (Quotation from The Man Who Knew Infinity, Robert Kanigel, 1991)

What would the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore make of Sundar Pichai and 21st-century India? In 1944, a young writer, Santha Rama Rau — another Tamil Nadu native — recounted meeting Tagore as an old man and proud Nobel laureate:

… Tagore continued fiercely and with what seemed like rising irritation, ‘Our youth, too much of our youth goes to learn from the West. Were we not their tutors originally? What will you learn from them? Technology!’ he growled scornfully. ‘Look in your villages, child. What use has an Indian farmer for technology until he has learned to defend himself against exploitation?’ …

Ah, … but there was this snippet in International Business Times last Friday:

… Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who himself congratulated Pichai via Twitter, has asked why the country lags many other economies when it comes to major science and technology breakthroughs and innovation. “Why is it that a company like Google isn’t born in India?” Modi asked recently, speaking in Hindi, at the inauguration of Digital India, a multibillion-dollar program to bring Internet to the country’s villages …

Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful. … Post-Gutenberg can never read enough proof of this world being infinitely stranger and more unaccountable than any of us can imagine.

A New York Times reporter uses the dreaded ‘c’ (for cooperative)-word and finds his enthusiasm premature, just like post-Gutenberg’s … in 2010-11

Screen shots from ‘Medieval Help Desk’: 4.6 million views on YouTube, so far — NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation)

The painful birth of the book: screen shots from ‘Medieval Help Desk’: 4.6 million views on YouTube, so far
NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation)

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 00.15.37

 

[ a curious WordPress software bug appears to be interfering with linking to some earlier post-Gutenberg entries. Follow the asterisks to the bottom of this post for those missing links ]

 

Well done, New York Times, at last … for letting one of your sharpest technology reporters advocate turning Reddit into a ‘user’-owned cooperative to end the fight about the news-aggregator site’s comment moderation policies. We had yet to come across Farhad Manjoo’s missionary zeal for this possibility when we made the same suggestion two posts ago: ‘The media ownership structure that dare not speak its name? Or is it the writing on the wall that new media, too, are deciphering too slowly?’. We could scarcely believe our eyes when we did.

Think of our last post in 2011, ‘Will 2012 be the year of a great leap forward into media’s future — even at The New York Times?’*. It contained this passage:

My personal high-water mark for the media establishment’s resistance to the new dates from the spring of 2010, when I emailed a question to an editor near the top of The New York Times.

The press has been critical to the success of democracy as a form of government; how is it responding to its own democratisation, and how far would it be prepared to go on that road — voluntarily? If you could recommend the right person at the paper for these questions, I’d be immensely grateful.

Zzzzzzzzzing! … the editor’s reply came fast enough to set heads spinning:

I don’t know that anyone would have a specific opinion on this, at least not one that represented the Times in general. You might look to see if an editorial has ever been written about it. If not, I suspect your question doesn’t have an answer. [my ital.]

No search engine brings up any such NYT editorial. What that response was surely supposed to impress on me was that ‘our’ never having addressed the question meant that it was inherently unanswerable.

Which is patently untrue …

Still, that was a gracious and munificent response, certainly by comparison with The Guardian’s — which had banned a suggestion along the same lines, a few weeks earlier. We reprinted the censored comment in a 7 November 2011 post, ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’** Here is what the axed comment said, in part (see that archived blog entry for the complete version ):

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 29 September 2011 9:34PM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:

postgutenberg

29 September 2011 9:34PM

[…]

Addressing Whealie‘s point, what if the Guardian were to try out an experiment in which commenters become part-owners of a section of the online newspaper and helped to decide on policies, including moderation?

More details here: Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders.***

The lapse of four years has not made much of a difference. The cringing reaction to the idea of co-ownership today, of many ordinary people — not just of famous newspapers like the NYT and Guardian – was in the tweets replying to @fmanjoo’s advertisement of his piece on Twitter. A sample, not necessarily in the right chronological order – from tweeters who sound pessimistic even when they believe in the dream of democratised management and shareholding:

Jul 14

Michael Moeschler ‏@moesch

@fmanjoo baguettaboutit

Jul 14

Arlo Gilbert ‏@arlogilbert

@fmanjoo @nytimes the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.

Jul 14

LornaGarey ‏@LornaGarey

@fmanjoo @nytimes Commie.

Jul 14

Jonathan Harrop ‏@harropj @fmanjoo Most redditors ALREADY think the site should bend to their whims and turn on a dime. This would be a terrible shit show.

Jul 15

Mark Devlin ‏@sparkzilla

@fmanjoo @nytimes But no mention of ethical issue of companies making millions/billions from the free work of contributors.

Jul 15

Mark Devlin ‏@sparkzilla

@fmanjoo @nytimes In the same vein: http://newslines.org/blog/reddit-and-wikipedia-share-the-same-disease/

All that will have been déja-vu for readers with excellent memories. The first post-Gutenberg.com entry, on 5 September 2011 — ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders’*** — offered this anatomisation of objections to publishing enterprises co-owned with ‘reader-commenters’ (‘users’, for @fmanjoo).

In January of last year, I outlined a scheme that a newspaper could run as an experiment in sharing ownership of a part of its site with reader-commenters. […] There were, broadly, five reasons for their reluctance to try it out:

  • ‘Too new’ – the scheme diverges too far from their ideas about the future evolution of media.
  • Protectionism. The mistaken belief that the scheme would entail paying commenters at the same rates as professional writers and journalists. That is not what the proposal says at all. The idea is that the arrangement would work very broadly in the way insurance does: people contributing more or less equal sums into a pool of money from which disbursements would be made in accordance with merit and need.
  • Semantics. Interpreting the scheme as ‘socialism’. There is no precise counterpart for the proposed arrangement – certainly not in publishing, as far as I know. But to convey the idea of shared ownership I used the word ‘cooperative’—which unfortunately spells ‘hippie’ utopianism or bankrupt socialist idealism to many people. It says something else entirely to me. For nearly 20 years, I have been a member of a rural electricity cooperative founded 75 years ago by a group of farmers – after the local power company refused to put them on its network. This organisation runs so beautifully that my electricity bills have always been a small fraction of sums I have paid for the identical usage patterns in other places.
  • Fear of losing power. Most publishers of the print era cannot give up the idea of journalists and editors performing on a stage for readers – the audience down in the pit, which is where they would like them to stay. They cannot accept that technology has made it realistic for readers to want – indeed, expect – to share the stage with them, even if only in walk-on parts, in most cases, at the start.
  • Pessimism. Publishers cannot conceive of making a bigger pie – that is, expanding revenue, and even earning profits, with luck – through sharing ownership with reader-commenters. They can only imagine being forced to accept smaller slices of an unchanged or shrunken pie.

Ah, well … none of that would be in the least surprising to anyone who lived through the 15th-century transition from scrolls and illuminated hand-made manuscripts to the printed book. The scholar Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance is a richly detailed, gripping account of that revolution. Many fell by the wayside in the quest for a workable economic structure (‘business model’) by entrepreneurs keen to use Gutenberg’s press to replicate manuscripts by the hundred — for citizens just as eager to become readers and acquire libraries of their own:

The investment that a printer made in type, paper and wages was all directed towards a clear goal: the production of a finished artefact. But unless the edition was supported by a wealthy sponsor or patron, the costs could only be recouped once the books had been sold. For many printers this demanded skills for which experience in a workshop offered little help, and a network of commercial contacts they did not possess. The pool of potential purchasers was large, but often widely dispersed. The desire of many printers to publish eye-catching, luxurious or innovative publications accentuated this problem, since books like this were most difficult to sell to a clientele dispersed around Europe. Printers would often have to hold stock for a long time before the edition was sold out: this again, was a problem not anticipated by those familiar with the retail manuscript trade …

http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/12/30/will-2012-be-the-year-of-a-great-leap-forward-into-medias-future-even-at-the-new-york-times/

**http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/07/why-is-the-guardian-censoring-discussion-of-press-restructuring-and-ignoring-the-top-judges-support-for-citizen-journalism/

***http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/05/wanted-a-brave-newspaper-for-an-experiment-in-which-readers-become-stakeholders/