Enter Public and Elites, Fighting
In the struggle that defines our moment in history, the correlation of forces, I have argued, pits public against elites. The public is any group of ordinary people that, in Walter Lippmann’s words, is “interested in an affair.” The public is us, or some of us at least – and we are in a bad mood. The elites are those highly-accredited, super-educated, starched-collar persons who run the great institutions of authority, including government. They are nervous and demoralized. They know the public is coming after them.
The public today speaks with the booming voice of Donald Trump, a billionaire but also a reality TV star, a political nobody, and something of a buffoon. Trump utters plebeian nonsense that, in style and tone, sets him apart from the elitist nonsense of the other candidates. His job seems to be to send the media and political establishments into a swoon every other day. He does it well. Trump has often been compared to Marine Le Pen of France, but a more apt evolutionary progenitor would be Beppe Grillo, the ex-comedian leading Italy’s largest protest party, whose name means “Jiminy Cricket.”
Public and elites dwell in mutually exclusive universes. For elites, it’s always 1989 and the internet hasn’t been invented yet. As for the public – which, let us note, is quite affluent, well educated, well fed, well dressed, and widely traveled – it believes the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and someone should pay for it. To say that out loud in mixed company is the indiscreet charm of a Trump, a Le Pen, a Beppe Grillo.
Against elites, the public has wielded digital devices like the smart phone, and digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr: source of the tsunami of information that has caused the great upending I call the Fifth Wave. Although these devices and platforms are controlled by a business elite, the public, understandably, tends to give this clique a pass in its blanket condemnation of the established order.
Thus Steve Jobs of Apple was beatified soon after death. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, by giving away his possessions in the manner of St. Francis, is taking the first steps in the same direction. One in three Americans think the government would be run more efficiently by Apple Corporation.
Yet the Palo Alto business elites, those “sovereigns of cyberspace,” turn out to be just as alienated from the bottom of the human pyramid as their political kindred in Washington DC, with whom they often consort. They want the world to be the way they think it should be: and when they gaze dreamily on the public, they see only the reassuring pictures inside their own heads.
Don’t See Evil: The Techno-Elites Take a Bow
A good measure of the astronomical distance between the techno-elites and the public can be obtained from Google’s “Year in Search 2015.”
The material made public by Google consists of a hodgepodge of search data – arrayed separately for the world and the US – together with a video purporting to summarize it. The search data captures the true interests of the public, unmediated by authority. It’s fascinating. The video is Google’s attempt to create a public in its own image and likeness. It betrays the myopic vision of the elites, and it partakes, stylistically, of Stalinist propaganda films about smiling tractor drivers and of crude parody worthy of South Park.
In the hive mind of Google, the public resembles an almost robotic aggregation of socially progressive attitudes. The public of the video lacks existential fears or trivial pursuits, but cares passionately about the refugee crisis, about Black Lives Matter and taking down the Confederate flag, about women’s place in the workforce, about ending the Cuban embargo, about allowing same-sex persons the right to marry, about hugging your transgender child.
The narration utters inanities that would embarrass a Viagra TV commercial: “it’s not about one person – it’s about thousands of people,” “it’s about all of us, accepting one another,” “we’re all different – that’s not a bad thing – that’s a good thing,” “if we only do it together.” Near the end, the narrator’s pleasant tenor voice is shown to emanate from the world-historical body of Caitlin Jenner.
The images are even more bizarre. They depict a world that can exist only in the hallucinatory recesses of elite wish-fulfillment.
Like all successful corporations, Google nurses certain illusions about itself. The founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, like to be characterized as “Montessori kids” who “disrespect authority.” The company’s famous informal motto, “Don’t be evil,” asserts the aggressive, semi-hippie idealism of the Bay Area technical culture – also its neo-Victorian sense of moral superiority. The “Googleplex,” near San Jose, with its lap pools and free food stations, feels like a corporate commune. Google’s fond illusion is that it has transcended hierarchy and power in delivering innovative goods to the world.
Reality is less egalitarian. Google’s valuation in 2015 was around $365 billion. The company has muscled its way to the top of the global economy. Page and Brin speak with enormous authority, and are seldom disrespected. They and their upper echelons subscribe to a perfectly commonplace elite worldview: the academic style of progressivism exemplified by Barack Obama. High Google executives advised the 2007 Obama campaign for the presidency. Several joined the administration in 2008.
Wealth and passage through elite schools helped shape the concerns of this crowd: obsession with victim groups and “saving the earth,” coupled with indifference to pocketbook issues. That obsession and indifference co-directed the “Year in Search” video. Only a combination of progressive idealism and extreme alienation could have conjured a narrative so magnificently detached from the facts it sought to represent.
And Now, Data: The Public Takes Center Stage
Problems of method obscure Google’s presentation of the search data. The company selected the categories, and the selection criteria is by no means clear. Some categories are accompanied by numbers, while others are reported in “most popular” lists relative to one another. So we know, for example, the exact tally of searches for Adele, but not for Donald Trump – and no explanation is given for this disparity. Google is famous for its reticence in sharing information: the last global search totals we have are from 2012.
A major categorical omission leaps out from what has been revealed. Nothing is said about economics: buying, selling, making a living, investing money, looking to hire or looking for work. We are entitled to doubt that, in 2015, the global public lost all interest in material advancement. Google clearly didn’t wish to share this information – again, for reasons that are left unstated.
Even with these caveats, the public that emerges from the search data is a wholly different organism from the utopian creature of the video.
The public is anxious about Islamist terror. By far the most-searched category concerned the January and December terrorist attacks in Paris: 897 million searches in total, more than double the next highest category. The video, by contrast, contains none of the dramatic images of the attacks or their immediate aftermath, though it does show, for a few seconds and without explanatory text, a candlelight “I am not afraid” gathering.
The public is not particularly interested in the refugee crisis. Although featured very prominently in the video, this issue received only 23 million searches. The public cared more for Cecil the lion, whose untimely death inspired 32 million searches. The public cared much more about the record-breaking length of Queen Elizabeth’s reign – it received 100 million searches.
The public favors entertainment and sports over social justice. Adele was the object of 439 million searches – second place, right behind terrorism. The 2015 Academy Awards received over 406 million searches. The Cricket World Cup sparked over 323 million searches, the Rugby World Cup over 246 million, the Mayweather-Paquio championship fight 216 million. These figures easily outshone the 189 million searches for “Black Lives Matter” and the 108 million for same-sex marriage.
As Cecil and the Queen illustrate, the public can engage in bouts of silliness, and pay attention to trivial things. Royal births and that strange phenomenon known as “The Dress” received attention disproportionate to their importance. But the public also focused on what was significant to its future: the early stages of the 2016 presidential elections generated 338 million searches. This data point receives zero footage in the video. By far the most-searched-for candidate was Donald Trump: he too is ignored by the video, and no numbers are provided to measure actual interest in him, in other candidates, or in specific issues.
Given an opportunity to throw light on those questions that matter to the American public, Google chose instead to present its data in a peculiarly opaque way.
Finally, we come back to that inescapable presence, the mellow voice of the video: Caitlin Jenner. That she was an object of intense interest by the public is beyond doubt: more than 336 million searches attest to the fact. The question we should ask is whether Jenner falls in the category of social justice or trivial pursuits. The top five searches using Jenner’s name offer a pretty good indication of the answer. Number two in popularity is “Who does Caitlin Jenner look like?” Number five is “What do the Kardashians think of Caitlin?” None of the top searches contain the term “transgender.”
Jenner, like Trump, is a reality TV personality. Both have ridden social and political controversies to garner astonishing levels of attention from the public. That attention, I suspect, has been lavished on their persons, not their causes. The tectonic collision of public against elites has had consequences: the battle over permissible speech, an inexhaustible hunger for rage and rant. This chaotic, fiercely contested environment has camouflaged with meaning two individuals who are, at heart, professional celebrities, and who add up to nothing more than the sum of the attention paid to them.
Expect more of their kind to surface in future “Years in Search” – and expect Google, and their kind, to misread and misrepresent them utterly.