Nobody would blame you for assuming that Dan Leveille is a Google employee. He actively maintains a Google Glass blog on Quora, his Google+ account is extremely active, with daily updates that often feature the latest news clips about Google products. And when in fact you ask him whether he works for Google, his reply is a sigh, either of wistfulness or nostalgia.
But Dan Leveille is not a Google employee. Leveille is what I call a “Googlieber”. In the same way that “Beliebers” are screamingly, blindly and manically devoted Justin Bieber, “Googliebers” are equally devoted to Google. In the same way that “Beliebers” imagine that Justin Bieber is the most sincere, sweetest, most talented, most down-to-earth, most perfect human being who ever lived, “Googliebers” believe… well, you get the idea.
Why do we need a new term for this? Well, because “Google fanboy” really doesn’t capture Leveille’s fanaticism. The “fanboy” charge is over-used, and is often slapped on someone who is simply advocating a Google product, or criticising one of Google’s competitors. MG Siegler at TechCrunch has even declared that he is a “fanboy” of all “good products”. But when talking to a Googlieber, there is no ambiguity: this is no mere fan.
Leveille’s latest obsession is with Google Glass. “I set up Google Alerts so that I could be informed as soon as more details and rumors were revealed,” explains Leveille. “I was pretty up to date on every little detail about it, and I even spent time reading through some of their patents to see the types of ideas they’re thinking about. Since then, I’ve set up my own Google Glass blog to cover news and share photos and videos about Glass.”
The glint in his eye when he talks about Google doesn’t come from Glass alone. His passion for Google is all-consuming. For Leveille, Google stands for “big ideas” and “noble goals”. They are the benevolent rulers of the technology world who sink money into Google Glass because they want to move humanity forward and accelerate the development of wearable technology.
They spearhead “Project Loon” to bring the internet to less developed parts of the world, and they actively promote progressive political messages like their anti-bullying and pro-LGBT campaigns.
According to Leveille, Google wants to make your life easier by giving you the tools to easily access more and better information. And, more than any other company in the world right now, they are in the position to actually do it.
In other words, they are like the all-powerful and loving parent that every child wishes he had.
Dr. Thomas Smith, University of Rochester, believes that Googliebers may suffer from a kind of addiction. Smith‘s research focuses on the interplay between individual psychological drives and broader social dynamics. In his book Strong Interaction, he talks about the way that social interaction throughout life, both with people and with organisations, is often mediated by deep psychological forces rooted in the original infant-caregiver relationship.
One way of understanding the Googlieber, suggests Smith, is that he may be using Google as what British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called a “transitional object”.
In this view, an infant “transfers” some portion of his or her “archaic omnipotence” – the feeling that he or she can do anything – to an external object, typically the parent. This transference is part of the way an infant regulates its emotions: the infant cries when it is scared or anxious, causing the parent to appear and soothe the infant.
If the parent is reliable and can be trusted, this transference moves on to other objects, especially those that remind the infant of its mother’s responsiveness and protection. The infant can begin to regulate its feelings of stress and anxiety with a teddy bear, or a blanket, or a favorite toy.
These “transitional objects” support the infant’s growing capacity to separate from its mother. Over time, the child will develop internal psychological structures, such as trust and self-esteem, that it can use to regulate its own emotions without the use of “attachment behaviours” with a parent or parent-substitute.
Of course, some people never get that far. When a child is never able to fully internalize these emotional self-regulating structures, he becomes dependent on friends and romantic partners, or even activities or fetish objects that serve as “transitional objects”, to sooth him when he is anxious or stimulate him when he is depressed. They become a constant recapitulation of the infant-caregiver relationship.
One indication that Leveille is viewing Google as a parent-substitute, or a “transitional object”, using Winnicott’s terminology, is his complete and utter trust in the power of the company. While others often view Google’s enormous power with suspicion and even fear, Leveille sees that power as comforting.
“Obviously, monopolies need to be regulated,” he admits, “but I’d say that if any company got too big… I’d want it to be Google.”
He also has absolutely no worries about privacy. He admits: “Honestly, I’m more worried about people hacking into my account than Google abusing my information. What would Google want to do with my information, really?”
A second indication that Leveille places Google in the role of parent-substitute is that he looks to Google for approval and affirmation. Leveille is a gay rights activist, and said that his passion for Google reached “a whole new level” when he started seeing how Google was taking political stances for LGBT rights, such as donating to LGBT causes, paying LGBT people extra because of tax inequalities, participating in pride marches, and promoting LGBT events on Google+.
In other words, Google was behaving in the way that Leveille would like an idealized parent figure to behave: fighting for his rights.
Smith points out that a re-enactment of the infant-caregiver relationship that has no hope of leading to development and separation is essentially an addiction. If a person is using some outside object to regulate his mood, then he will increasingly turn to that object whenever life becomes uncomfortable. If that object is cannot serve the role of a “good parent” – as is the case with drugs, exercise, or a bad relationship – the person is simply forced to turn to the object for emotional soothing again and again and again.
“If Google is the emotional equivalent of the parent,” explains Smith, “then it is not the good mother but one whose own needs stand in front of the infant’s. It does not enable them to separate. And thus they remain dependent, and even addicted.”
There is an inverse to the addictive parent-child relationship of the Googliebers, as well: the Google Haters. A close look at Google Haters reveals that they, too, view Google as a parent: but in their case, it is a parent to be feared and resented.
Google Haters have presented a litany of criticisms of Google Glass: it’s buggy, it’s difficult to see in bright sunlight, it’s disorienting, it’s mildly inconvenient, the batteries don’t last long enough, and so on. In other words: “I hate it because it’s not perfect.”
There are also the many “could-be criticisms” of Google Glass: it could be used to destroy privacy in America, it could be used to gather vast quantities of information, it could lead to the United States becoming a surveillance state, it could lead to new forms of stalking, it could cause health problems, it could be hacked, it could help the police, it could hurt the police, it could make people more mean, and so on.
All of these complaints arise from the unspoken assumption that Google should be omnipotent. No company is normally held to the standard of only releasing “perfect” products. While Googliebers are like children, wide-eyed and idealizing their omnipotent parents, Google Haters are like sullen teens who have first discovered that their parents aren’t perfect… and hate them for it.
What are other complaints that Google Haters regularly make in chat rooms and blogs across the internet? Bloggers complain that Google changes its ranking algorithms in ways that are confusing and difficult to keep track of. Small business owners complain that paid advertisements appear higher than their own businesses in search results. Spammers complain that Google makes it more difficult for them to spam.
Essentially these are the complaints of narcissistic children who are aggravated by the inadequate level of attention that they are getting from their parent. Google Haters, like Googliebers, still expect Google to be a parent… and as a result, they are angry when that parent doesn’t respond to their every emotional demand.
But of course, Google’s goal was never to make it easy for businesses to advertise, or for spammers to spam: it was to make it easy for users to find what they are looking for. As Kent Walker, a Google lawyer, is reported as saying: “we build Google for users, not Web sites.”
Not a parent after all
As deluded as Googliebers might be, they are actually less deluded than Google Haters.
When Smith claims that Google is a “bad parent” because it puts its own needs in front of the infant’s, he is absolutely correct. This is exactly what also makes Google Haters so angry. Google is self-interested. Google is profit-seeking. Google doesn’t care about the users, because it only cares about its advertisers.
In other words: Google is behaving like any other company.
When asked directly about Google being a self-interested, profit-seeking company, Leveille is quick to point this out: “I think that’s the same for any company. All companies have profit motives… They’re a business and they need to make money, and as long as they’re transparent, I think there’s little to criticise.”
The very fact that Google would come under such widespread criticism for “having a profit motive” shows that the Google Haters operate under a similar delusion to that of Googliebers: the delusion that Google should be behaving like a parent.
This might be even more insane than believing that Google is a profit-seeking company that also happens to want to be a good parent to the world.