Friday, October 22, 2010

Obama Misses the Point

Apparently yesterday evening Barack Obama was fundraising at the Palo Alto home of Zachary Bogue and his wife, Google executive Marissa Meyer.  As reported by Carla Marinucci, Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle:

The 7 p.m. fundraiser was first scheduled at Mayer's luxury Four Seasons condo in downtown San Francisco but was moved after organizers realized that the presidential motorcade could disrupt a potentially more important event - the San Francisco Giants' baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, which began shortly before 5 p.m.

In this context one can appreciate what is currently the most popular reader comment from yaweno:

Too bad us poor folks don't get to talk to the President. I don't think these gazillionaires can provide a true picture of what life is like in our America. Sad.

Yes, it is sad.  Just as sad, however, is the extent to which Obama fails to recognize that some of the solutions he is trying to promote may actually be the causes of the problems faced on just about every Main Street in the country.  Consider the following paragraphs from Marinucci’s report:

Obama asked the diners to sit down and recalled meeting Mayer on his first visit to Google a few years ago, where he saw that "if people have the tools to let their imaginations run, then there's nothing we can't do in this country."

He said the country has been through "a decade in which, frankly, that can-do spirit had been lost" and that his task as president "hasn't just been to stop the bleeding, but to find out how the country can deal with the issues "that have prevented more Googles from being created."

One possibility is that Obama was saying what he was expected to say among the company he was keeping.  More likely, however, is that he just does not get that creating “more Googles” does not solve the problem of a country controlled by a rich-and-mighty culture that has almost entirely decimated the world of work that the rest of us inhabit.  Yes, Google is now a large enterprise that provides employment for a significant number of people;  but to what end is all this taking place?

First of all, not all of it is strictly for innovation.  Given the number of pies into which Google has now stuck its fingers, its greatest need is for an army of software development drones responsible for making sure that none of the cars of the train (not to mention the locomotive) run off the rails.  This is skilled labor;  and Google can afford to recruit and maintain the “best of the best,” filtering out all lower-grade candidates through a barrage of aptitude and achievement tests.

None of this has anything to do with innovation, however.  Presumably it is that capacity for innovation that Obama had in mind when invoking that “can-do spirit;”  and it is certainly the case that Google became what it is through such spirit.  However, the question still remains:  to what end is Google pursuing innovation?  The simple answer to the question is that the goal is increased dependence on Google, particularly where our national addiction to consumerism is concerned, because, like it or not, that is (as Willie Sutton put it so poetically) “where the money is.”  It is because that addiction to consumerism is so tightly coupled to the economic crisis that continues to plague Main Street that Google is not a source of economic solution and may even continue to aggravate our economic problems.  If we then factor in Nicholas Carr’s arguments about how the use of Google has turned us into an "answer-driven culture" whose reflective capacities have been seriously eroded, it should come as no surprise that the “deep creativity” behind the sorts of innovations that can make significant changes is so alien to Google that it has become a symptom for which Google is the antidote.  (Remember that, in any corporate culture, even one as “innovative” as Google, the prevailing synonym for “significant change” is “disruption,” with all of its contingent unpleasant connotations.  If our country is addicted to consumerism, then Google is addicted to that status quo that keeps the rest of us so addicted.  Why should they want that status quo disrupted?)

To be fair to Obama, he is certainly right that this is a problem that goes deeper than stopping the bleeding.  However, if he wants to use that metaphor, he has to recognize that you cannot stop the bleeding until you identify its source.  This is a case where the hemorrhaging is jugular, not the best place to apply the usual preliminary solutions of pressure and tourniquets.  More importantly, it is not a case where you go for a quick palliative solution rather than dealing with the systemic problem before it is too late.  As yaweno put it, our President has been spending too much time listening to the wrong people, probably to the point that the people he should be listening to no longer see any value in talking to him;  and the patient may well die before even the most appropriate triage measures are taken.

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