Google, Modi, and the Game of Monopoly


Google, Modi, and the Game of Monopoly

Illustration: Akshita Monga

September 4. This momentous day has gone down in history books as the day mankind reached a turning point. No, this isn’t the day the wheel was invented or the day the printing press put out its first pamphlet. On September 4, 1998, a couple of Stanford University students with the last names Brin and Page, filed paperwork to register the odd-named company Google.

To paraphrase, the rest is the present. I researched even this little factoid through a Google search. You know you’ve achieved cultural intrinsicness when a proper noun becomes a verb, just the way “just fucking Google it” has. Just like “Uncle ek Bisleri dena” or “Uncle do Xerox nikalna” before it: A metonym; a product, an idea, distilled down to a brand name.    

I suppose today is the day I should be thanking Google from the bottom of my heart. If it weren’t for the search engine, I’d never know how to spell Schwarzenegger (although, I am yet to figure out how to pronounce it) or find out answers to bizarre sexual queries that I’m ashamed to ask my friends or Dr Mahendra Watsa.

But more than anything else, Google is today an illustration of the Indian political landscape. The essential flaw that afflicts Google – a complete lack of competition – also shapes our government.

If you really think about it, Modiji, the BJP, and Google aren’t that different. Google doodles cover every event around the world, while Modiji literally covers the world. Google has made our lives easier, while every BJP minister claims that acche din aane wale hai. Google is so big it rules two thirds of the search engine market, just as the BJP rules about two thirds of India. Google has ensured that the competition has virtually diminished, and the BJP just became BFFs with its biggest competitor, Nitish Kumar.

Competition is healthy, in the same way that playing in keechad in your childhood days helped you develop immunity.

Despite everything wonderful that Google and the BJP have done for us, is this the world we want to live in, where our beliefs have no challenge (don’t bother answering that if you have a Digital India filter DP)? Could either of these entities do really well without any test of their limits?

Look at sport, for instance. Could Roger Federer have unleashed his best if he didn’t have a Rafael Nadal to compete with? Or commerce. Without Amazon, we’d all still be buying stuff off Flipkart. Or culture. Could Dhinchak Pooja really aspire to greatness without a Taher Shah to spar with? Hell, without the 90-percenter Sharmaji ka beta, we’d all still be backbenchers happy with our B-minuses.

Competition is healthy, in the same way that playing in keechad in your childhood days helped you develop immunity. If you’d paid attention in your eighth-grade economics class, the one thing you’d remember is that monopoly is bad, because you can exploit your customers and people have no choice. Imagine craving an ice cream but there’s only one shop in your entire area that only stocks vanilla – and you have to pay any price he demands.

The best alternative to Google is Bing, which can be called the Rahul Gandhi of the search engine world. Bing is so bad that if you enter a question, you get search results that have nothing to do with the search query. It’s like watching Rahul Gandhi say “women empowerment” regardless of the question you ask him. It’s almost like watching an MMA fighter in one of the greatest bouts of his life… in a boxing ring. Sure, it’s entertaining and a lot of people are invested in it, but we all secretly know how it ends.

Without competition, the big just keep getting bigger and stronger. Google is now a powerhouse of information. Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Chrome, AdSense, Goggles: There are now more Google products than there are MDH Masala flavours. Google knows you better than you know yourself.

Just. Like. Aadhaar.

The Aadhaar card is now linked to more services than the number of women that have been linked with Ranveer Singh. If the past is any indicator and if the government is as callous with our personal data as it has proven to be, the day isn’t far away when even our breathing and our sex lives will be constantly tracked to sell us penis enlargement pills. Through PayTm, of course.

But just think about the way that the Aadhaar is being forced down the throats of the Indian population. Could the BJP have really been able to achieve it if our Opposition hadn’t been as ineffectual as a bunch of wilted daisies? The only time there was a sign of life from the other side in recent times was when the presidential elections were taking place; and then it was back to the graveyard.       

Yet. “With great power, comes great responsibility,” as the only quote worth remembering from that Spider-Man movie goes. Google has had to pay a heavy fine for using the power of its search engine to discriminate against rival shopping sites. They scaled the “hide chocolates from the fridge so your sibling doesn’t find it” prank to the largest scale possible. Aadhaar too has been under fierce debate in India, with questions being raised about its security, integrity, and privacy-related issues. There are more articles on Aadhaar in newspapers these days than pictures of Aaradhya Bachchan and Taimur Ali Khan combined. That’s when you know it’s a really serious issue.

The BJP is all set to cruise with the 2019 general elections in India. Google too has mega plans in store for expanding and diversifying. Google is investing heavily in a project (Calico) that will attempt to make humans immortal. I thought Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan had already figured that out. But let’s just pause and think for a moment, how different it would be if we had more choice. There would be real competition and more ideas that affect every part of our life would be challenged and debated. Not in the way they are on Arnab’s show, with 12 people yelling over each other and none of them making any sense. But in the manner in which we have competition among porn sites. Healthy, in good spirit, and that which keeps customers happy.