Monday, October 18

The BBC interviewer found himself in a difficult situation with the CEO of Google | John naughton

LLast weekend, in what the BBC clearly regarded as big news, the corporation announced that its media editor, Amol Rajan, had obtained an interview with Sundar Pichai, the current CEO of Alphabet (which basically stands for Google). It was billed as “the first in a series of interviews with global figures.” If the head 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 meeting? Simply this: Mr. Pichai is a good guy. He comes from a modest background in India, left Stanford in the traditional way, has an MBA from Wharton, and has worked for Google since 2004. He has been CEO of Google (and Alphabet, its parent company) since 2015.

So do good guys sometimes finish first? In that sense, Pichai looks a lot like Tim Cook, Apple’s boss, who was the unlikely successor to the fickle 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 exceptional products, on time and on budget. Pichai, for his part, supervised or participated 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 giants.

The interview was a classic media production. Rajan had done the kind of homework great reporters do, even reading Henry Kissinger’s reflections on the subject of artificial intelligence. “I want to know,” he declared at the beginning, “who [Pichai] actually put proper scrutiny on the power of Google and understand where technology is taking us. “It turns out that he and Pichai have family in Tamil Nadu and are obsessed with cricket. In the end, they even managed to have a cricket game of cod that Rajan tried to throw a ball at the Google boss in. So they’re both nice guys, they got like a house on fire and told us absolutely nothing.

Like I said: a classic treatment of technology by mainstream media. The BBC’s media editor wanted to know “where technology is taking us all.” Therefore, he is a native speaker of the narrative of technological determinism: the view that technology drives history and the role of society is simply to clean up after and adapt to the new reality. By the way, it’s also the narrative that tech companies have assiduously cultivated from the start, because it usefully diverts attention from uncomfortable questions about human agency and whether democracies can have ideas about what kinds of technology are tolerable or beneficial and which not.

A second characteristic of the mainstream media’s approach to industry is the appreciation of the bosses of big companies, which fits in very well with the “founder cult” 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’re left with their quieter successors (Cook, Satya Nadella, Andy Jassy, ​​and Pichai, respectively). These are more like normal human beings than their predecessors but, in a strange way, they are more difficult subjects to interview because they more easily deflect difficult questions.

In this regard, Pichai proved to be an accomplished hitter. When asked about the importance of “AI” (interpreted, as usual, as a polite term for machine learning), he stated that it was like fire or electricity and would play a “fundamental role in almost every aspect of our lives. lives “. When asked to give examples, he spluttered that he might come up with “that perfect playlist for you,” allowing you to “be your own DJ.” Oh, and it could also help radiologists look for things like tumors. Rajan nodded approvingly.

It continued like this. Q: Tech companies employ almost no one compared to their huge revenues? A: Ah yes, but think of all the small businesses we enable. And former Google employees have created more than 4,000 companies. Q: Can Google get too big? A: It is often valuable to be great because then you can do bigger things. On tax evasion, Rajan mentioned that in 2017 Google moved $ 23 billion through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda (where taxes are zero). Would Pichai commit not to use tax havens from now on? Pichai: “We no longer use that tax structure and we moved our IP [intellectual property] already out of Bermuda. “

When the show closed with the two sharing a friendly elbow bump, one could almost hear Google’s PR team say, “Well, it turned out okay, didn’t it?” whereas in Shepherd’s Bush (or wherever the BBC hangs out) it would have been tripled everywhere. Work well done; now for the next “global figure”. But on his humble ranch, this license fee payer wondered: when are we going to get “proper scrutiny” of the companies that now dominate our networked world?

What i’ve been reading

Trust issues
Benedict Evans offers a skeptic and perceptual analysis of antitrust bills facing technology companies.

All the Raj
A great essay on the Guardian by Amartya Sen, excerpted from his new book, explores what the British government actually did for India.

Let the games begin
Coronavirus variant excited to compete with the world’s top mutations in Tokyo this summer is an ironic dispatch from the onion about this month’s “super spreader” event.

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