Whenever I think of those iconoclasts at Google, changing the very essence of business one totally awesome logo doodle at a time, I remember a New York Times article about a Waldorf school that featured a girl called Andie. Based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, this school is a studiedly old-fashioned place of blackboards and chalk, where the classroom tools are things such as knitting needles and apples, and there is an absolute, quasi-religious ban on computers or screens or any of the other hi-tech devices of which all other, less-knowing schools might boast. Even their use at home by pupils is heavily frowned upon. Andie was a fifth grader (10 to 11 age group), and her father was proud to say that she “doesn’t know how to use Google”. Daddy’s job? Well, he was high up in the executive communications department at Google.
Yes, Andie’s school is in Silicon Valley, and – in an irony so predictable that it only deserves the old cliche about drug dealers never dreaming of using their own product – her classmates were the scions of bigwigs at Apple, Yahoo, eBay and the rest.
These kids will all have been twiddling away with their yarn this week, so there isn’t the remotest chance they’d have done anything so brain-mushingly transgressive as Googled Google, and noticed it was suffering a little local difficulty in the UK. And anyway, I’ve no idea whether the moral rectitude of paying tax is one of the wholesome values being so expensively instilled into them. But it wouldn’t take long for them to grasp the lesson, because children have an innate sense of fairness.
The journey into adulthood does its best to disabuse them of this, of course, and by the time they grow into Google executives in the mould of the firm’s northern Europe boss, Matt Brittin, they are able to sit before the Commons public accounts committee and explain why they paid £3.4m in tax in Britain despite taking sales of £3.2bn from UK customers. Brittin was explaining again that Google’s UK salespeople don’t actually sell, despite rapidly mounting whistleblower testimony to the contrary – just as Amazon’s great and good will no doubt maintain of their own operation if they are recalled before the committee as expected.
For all the brilliant marketing of these firms as something entirely new, Brittin’s performance was utterly familiar. In fact, the single thing that distinguished him from all the bankers and the Murdochs and the so-called old-style capitalists who have sat before such committees in recent times was that he wasn’t wearing a tie. This, of course, is how we know that he works for one of those firms so often held to be remaking the very idea of commerce itself, when of course they aren’t, and big business has always been big business, and just as rapacious.
If you had to design a composite of today’s rulebook-tearing businessman who is of course anything but, then he would have Richard Branson’s sensationally unconventional beard and wear Steve Jobs’s outrageously leftfield black poloneck and Mark Zuckerberg’s iconoclastically unorthodox Adidas sandals. In every meaningful other respect, his behaviour would mimic that of every other chief executive since capitalism began.
It’s a mark of this generation’s strange self-regard that people are minded to think particularly of the tech billionaires as having somehow created a new model of business, when the new boss is inevitably similar to the old boss. For all their Prius-driving babyfacery, you know most of them would be sitting down with Pyongyang in a heartbeat if they thought there was a few extra quid in it.
Facebook’s Zuckerberg has already hosted his first Republican fundraiser, and is pouring vast sums of money into lobbying for laws that would suit his business. He has the usual philanthropic ventures, of course, for which he’ll one day probably win one of those bizarre humanitarian awards handed out to famous people who devote a tiny percentage of their time to charity work, but never to the nameless souls who do it for a pittance day in, day out. Perhaps these inevitable future garlands can sit alongside his honour from the satirist Stephen Colbert, who awarded him a “Fear medal” for “valu[ing] his privacy a lot more than yours”.
As for Google and Amazon and all the bright young companies, you have to take your hat off to the marketing whizzes who have managed to convince significant swaths of the public (and media) that they are seeing something new. As one tax lawyer observed of their timeworn practices, “in the real world people play to win”. It was ever thus. These firms are only changing the way you thought about big business if you were one of those adorable ingenues who thought big business paid its fair share, when in fact across the world the poor give a far greater percentage of their money away than the rich.
Taxes are still for the little people, I’m afraid, as is paying for the financial crisis that was definitely caused by their reliance on a few quid of benefits, while the masters of the universe remain very masterful indeed, for all the relaxed dress code. But do let’s hope they’re not using apples or pebbles or something to teach this lesson in the Silicon Valley Waldorf school. Innocence is so precious – in fact, even at conservative estimates, it’s worth billions a year.
Article source: http://feeds.guardian.co.uk/~r/theguardian/uk/rss/~3/gA9IHWAaotk/dont-be-fooled-by-googles-babyfacery