by Emina Melonic
Although many people don’t see it or refuse to acknowledge it, we are living in a mangled version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.
There are technological and morally dubious (at best!) forces that control the flow of information we see and can release into the world. Facebook, Twitter, and Google – our current rendition of “The Big Three” – rightfully have been accused of censorship, as example after example comes to light.
Yet, even as more is revealed with each new example, nothing seems to be done to change the situation. The rest of the population – i.e., the users – are powerless to do anything about it because the structure of all social media companies allows rhem to operate under the guise of privatization. If the company is private, then logically it would follow that we have no right to criticize their company policies. Add to that the fact that their services, mainly, are free to users, and complaints are often met with dismissive charges of ingratitude.
And yet, users have no genuine choice because these are the platforms that amount to today’s public square. We have no choice because the primary way of disseminating and absorbing information and knowledge about public affairs is through a variety of online platforms. This is the perfect not-so-secret Trojan Horse that today’s “Big Three” have used to insert themselves into the private lives of others.
Given these facts, we may be tempted to think that behind the screen resides some maniacal Big Brother whose minions are working ’round the clock and plotting evil ways of controlling people, all the while sipping scotch, smoking cigars, and laughing at us. But as Hannah Arendt noted, evil is more often “banal” than interesting and in this case, censorship comes in many different forms, even within the company itself.
Last month, details of Google’s newsletter, “Yes, at Google,” leaked and revealed a series of itemized incidents of “microaggressions” and “micro-corrections.” Employees at Google are not yet required to report such occurrences nor are they forced to subscribe to the newsletter, the sole purpose of which is “to anonymously report complaints of inappropriate behavior by co-workers.” But its existence tells us something important about the culture and direction of the company.
You may wonder what Google means by “inappropriate,” but judging from the list of grievances, the world of microaggressions is a labyrinthine and very much real at Google. Some of them deal with day to day operations and work relations between employees, but they reveal much of the bigger problems at hand.
Google employees complain about the most dull and insignificant details of ordinary life and are essentially imprisoned in a cave, as they blindly follow some nebulous authority, which gives them directives about how to act, speak, and most absurdly, how to interact with others. Why are they following these directives? Why are they professing obedience to a “thing” they deem to be all-powerful who is not God?
In his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, the American psychologist Stanley Milgram explored this very question. Milgram’s famous experiment, in which he tested the limits and possibilities of human free will became the basis for the book.
Milgram’s experiment consisted of “teachers,” who were instructed to deliver electric shocks to the “learner” when he gave the wrong answer to a question. The test was designed in such a way that the “learner” would never answer the question correctly because he was part of Milgram’s team. The instructor, or the experimenter, who monotonously and unemotionally delivered a directive to “keep going” was part of Milgram’s team as well. The objective was to find whether people will follow orders without any thought or reflection. The experiment was controversial because the experimenter created an appearance of a real electric shock, despite the fact that the equipment was disconnected from any possible electric source, and the shock wasn’t real at all. Of course, Milgram’s reputation as something of an eccentric made the experiment even more questionable.
Milgram primarily was interested in how one human being can follow orders from a perceived authority figure and not question the possible immorality of the order. What led Milgram to ponder such questions were the events of World War II but he also knew that the experiment’s purpose could extend beyond the study of the Holocaust. It can also serve as an impetus to ask questions as to why seemingly normal human beings, presumably in full possession of their individuality, end up being blind followers.
For Milgram, “obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority.” Of course, there is such a thing as a “good” obedience—a sense in which we are following accepted rules of society in order to prevent chaos and collapse. But the obedience that interested Milgram (and which is becoming more common today) can be summed up in the following question he posed: “How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual?” In other words, the soulless behavior of the mindless bureaucrat.
Milgram’s results in the experiment revealed that most of the subjects obeyed “the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out.” Much of this depended on the experimenter’s politeness, which undoubtedly created a dissonance in the subject’s mind. If not strong enough, the subject will acquiesce and do as he or she is told.
Google’s newsletter, which was “softly” requested and in turn written by the “Woke Pod People,” should by no means be compared to the historical events that Milgram was trying to study through his experiment. But we should remember that any sort of bureaucracy that destroys the unique individuality of a person does, on some level, involve a hierarchy of directives, orders, and the mandatory act of following them completely.
Although this is supposed to be only an issue internal to Google, it does reveal a societal problem of obedience and collectivism. Is it really easier to be a collectivist rather than an individual person in full possession of one’s identity and choices? This indeed is “the Organization Man” of the 21st century! He’s got it all: fantastical notions of microaggressions, the “woke” factor, moralism without ethics, obedience to perceived authority, all intertwined with collectivist corporatism.
What we see in the example of Google’s euphemistically titled newsletter is precisely that some people are happy to be obedient followers. The fact that they feel like victims is only part of the whole picture. Another part is that those who issue anonymous reports on various so-called transgressions see themselves as “saviors” of the company’s mission, therefore the number of theoretical “likes” increases rapidly as does the feeling of somehow being special in the sea of otherwise nameless employees quietly typing their lives away into the pit of desperation.
Collectivism will always present itself as an existential and political problem. What makes it even more palpable and troubling, however, is its presence in America. Here it has grown and adapted to our cultural ethos, taking on a different form than in other countries. Here it’s not only a government seeking to take control over people’s lives, it is a combination of government institutions and private companies advancing their supposed freedom in the market. With their mixture of false ethics and unusual privatization practices, Google has taken on a form of a different kind of totalitarianism. We have to recognize it for what it is because that is the only way to fight its collectivist impositions.
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Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, Emina Melonic immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.
Photo “Stan the Dinosaur” by Google.