King Kamehameha 1st of Hawai’i (1736–1819) practiced the art of gift-giving during his reign, as it is typical of kings and rulers. It is remembered that he said, “E ‘oni wale no ‘oukou i ku’u pono ‘a’ole e pau.” “Endless is the good that I have given to you to enjoy.” In our times Google seems to have taken the same attitude: it gives us gifts in the form of free data. In view of the concept of “epistemic coup” proposed by Shoshana Zuboff, Google is rapidly becoming the Epistemic Emperor of the world.

From “The Seneca Effect”

In Roman times, it was a good thing to be the Emperor: you had gold, palaces, women, slaves, and lots of privileges, including the power to put anyone to death. Emperors were supposed to be semi-divine creatures, enthroned by the Gods themselves but, in practice, they would soon become balding old men (if they survived to old age, not easy given the competition). So, why would anyone obey them?

Not a difficult question to answer. The Roman Emperors practiced a game that all rulers practice. It is called “gift-giving.” It is part of the concept of sharing: something deeply embedded in the nature of human beings, ultimately a manifestation of empathy among humans.

Sharing naturally creates social bonds that generate the hierarchical patterns that allow society to structure itself. In a harmonious society, the leaders govern without the need for force. They rule by their prestige, in turn obtained by judicious use of gift-giving, not just in monetary forms: a leader may be one because he shares knowledge, wisdom, or other skills. Of course, societies are never perfect and, in the real world, governance is a combination of positive and negative enhancements: the carrot and the stick. But the carrot is way more effective than the stick: for a leader, a live follower is much more useful than a dead enemy.

The Roman Empire was a monetized society, but the gift-giving game was played without involving money when the Emperor graciously provided the plebeians with “panem et circenses,” (bread and games). If the plebeians were not happy enough, the Emperors could switch from the carrot to the stick, and employ the armed forces stationed in Rome, the Guardia Praetoriana, to teach the rabble a lesson. Of course, the Pretorians needed gifts, too, and they usually got them in the form of money. No Emperor could survive for long without large, sometimes extravagant, payments to the troops supporting him.

But, where did the Emperors get the resources they needed to provide gifts to their followers? Of course, from taxes. It was a tool that they would often use also to impoverish and eliminate potential competitors. The poor were normally too poor to be taxed and so the Emperor, though no Robin Hood, played a useful role in terms of wealth redistribution. Otherwise, wealth would have mostly accumulated in the coffers of the wealthy nobles (just as in our times it accumulates in the bank accounts of our financial tycoons). The Roman system was far from perfect but, as long as there was something to redistribute, it worked. When the Roman state collapsed, there was nothing left for the Emperors to tax or rob and nothing to redistribute. No gifts, no empire.

Fast forward to our times, and you can clearly see how we still practice a simple, non-monetized form of gift-giving on Christmas. But that is just a relic of old times. In practice, the Western society was built over a century or so by a gift-giving system larger and more pervasive than ever seen in any society in history. Politicians get elected by promising gifts to their voters, but they mainly provide gifts to lobbies, corporations, and power groups. And the lobbies give back awesome gifts to politicians. In the flurry of transactions, something trickles down to ordinary people. It is this network of givers and receivers that keeps the Global Empire together. Or, at least, has kept it together so far. It is a hierarchy based on money: the more you have, the higher you are on the social ladder.

In practice, you don’t climb the social ladder by showing the balance of your bank account. You do that by the mechanism called “conspicuous consumption.” The more you consume, the higher you go.

“Consuming” means, ultimately, to throw away old stuff and replace it with new stuff — it is a practice that has much in common with the ancient usage called “potlatch” of the North-Western American Natives, where a chief would show is social worth by destroying valuable things he owned. In our case, it is done on a much larger scale and it is normally monetized. But you probably understand that if you can buy stuff and then throw it away it is only by means of a gift from the powers that be: the salary you receive for doing something that you know is useless, too.

And here you see the problem. With the gradual depletion of the mineral energy resources that power our society, consumerism is toast, just like the Roman Empire was when it ran out of gold. At some point, people will have to discover that the “money” they cherish so much is no more than numbers in a computer memory, and that these numbers can be erased at will by the powers that be. For a start, no more mass tourism and no more dining out. Then, in a short while, the flow of trinkets arriving from Amazon will dry out, too. It is coming, it has to.

No money, no conspicuous consumption. But how will the elites maintain their power? Right now, they seem to have decided to go for the stick, but governing by force is expensive and it has never really worked. What we need is government by prestige, but based on what? Right now, the prestige of our politicians seems to be more or less at the same level as that of leeches and other invertebrates. Evidently, some change is necessary.

A hierarchy doesn’t necessarily have to be based on money — especially if money becomes useless when there is nothing left to buy (I called this “The problem of the shipwrecked sailor”). All hierarchies are, ultimately, based on prestige, and prestige can be gained in many different ways. For instance, early medieval Europe was poor and and “consuming” things (that is throwing away the old for the new) would have been considered a sin of vainglory. Prestige was the result of knowledge: the access to the sacred books of Christianity gave to the Christian church a prestige and a political importance that today we can’t even imagine anymore. (*)

Once we get rid of consumerism (we must), we will move to a form of prestige based on knowledge. It is not just prestige: those who know more have more power, just think of what we call “insider trading.” But, on the whole, prestige is the main output of knowledge. Those who know more — or have access to more data — are higher in the hierarchical scale.

And we arrive to what Shoshana Zuboff calls the “Epistemic Empire” — government by knowledge. Of course, our knowledge is not anymore stored in holy books, it is stored in the Web. Those who control the Web, control the world. The ruler of the Web is the emperor of the world: an epistemic emperor.

So, who controls the Web? The struggle is ongoing, but the outcome starts to be evident. Imagine you were transported to Imperial Rome, how could you say who is the ruler of the place? Easy: the one who gives the most gift to the public: smaller rulers couldn’t match the Emperor’s largesse. In our times, it is just as easy: take a look at which internet company is giving away the larger number of gifts: by far it is Google.

Let me write down a list of the free tools that Google provides.

  • Google Blogger
  • Google Books
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Data Studio
  • Google Docs
  • Google Earth
  • Google Jigsaw
  • Google Mail
  • Google Maps
  • Google Marketplace
  • Google Mobility
  • Google Ngrams
  • Google Pay
  • Google Scholar
  • Google Translate
  • Google Trends

and many more. Just take a look at this page https://cloud.google.com/ai-workshop/experiments#experiments.

It is amazing that Google gives you for free such huge databases as “Google Earth” and “Google Ngrams.” No other Web entity does anything comparable. The financial tycoons, Musk, Gates, Bezos, and the others are unbelievably stingy in comparison, they look like petty provincial tyrants. Other entities do provide data for free, for instance, the World Bank, NASA; and even the CIA, but the scale is much smaller. Then, Wikipedia, but that seems to be rapidly becoming mostly a battleground of paid trolls. Facebook, then, doesn’t give you anything, it only takes from you. Most of the new social networks seem to be interested mostly in showing you cute kittens and scantly clad young ladies. As for the world’s universities and scientific research centers, they are a sad bunch of misers. They pretend to be creating knowledge but, in effect, they get money from the public and give nothing back to the public. Finally, governments are giving you only propaganda and fake news, the equivalent of counterfeited money. There is absolutely no data coming from governments and their mouthpieces called “The Media” that you can really trust.

So, Google plays the role that the Emperors of once would play, that of redistributing some of the wealth that the system creates. In return, just like the Roman citizens of old times, you have to pay back with your taxes. How? Not in monetary terms, of course, because the gifts you receive are not monetary. You pay data with data. By using Google services, especially their search engine, you give data to Google: it is an exchange, a gift-giving system. With the data you provide, Google builds up its knowledge, and with it, its dominance. And Google can afford to give you back knowledge as a gift. It is the dominance of the Epistemic Emperor of the world: Google.

One thing we know is that powerful entities always strive to increase their power. So, Google is clearly poised to sweep away the whole band of bloodsuckers that we call “universities” and take over the task of public instruction, something that governments don’t seem to be able to supply anymore. At the same time, Google had already tried to compete with its only remaining competitor, Facebook. The now-gone “Google+” didn’t succeed, but, as we all know, revenge is something that is best served cold. The clumsy censorship machine that Facebook created is backfiring. Lots of people still use Facebook but hate it deeply and would love to leave it if they just could find something equivalent. Not that Google doesn’t censor, but it does so in a much subtler way (see the Google Jigsaw site). So, the destiny of Facebook may be written in the cloud. Don’t forget that FB rose on the ashes of a previous social network, the now-forgotten Friendster. Sic transit gloria!

And from now on? The huge and proteiform Google virtual machine can only continue expanding, not necessarily destroying the competition, but merging with it in an even larger machine. Google may take over one public service after the other, replacing even the state. After “Google University,” we may see a “Google Police,” a “Google Court,” a “Google Retirement” a “Google Bank” (actually, it is already there) and, why not, a “Google Government.” Government for Google, by Google, in the name of Google (***). After that, there remains only “Google God” — which seems to be incarnating already (Facebook, clumsy as usual, has now a “pray” button).

Is all this good or bad? An ill-posed question. Google is neither evil nor good (correctly, they removed the “Don’t be Evil” motto from their code of conduct). Google is what it is — and if it is, it means that it had to be.

It seems clear that the huge Google machine is, by now, impossible to control by mere human beings and it may well be the reason why the founders (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) are so rarely mentioned. The parts that form Google are self-assembling and creating a huge virtual holobiont that’s expanding in the memesphere. The great thing may well evolve further into a hyerobiont (**), but that will be beyond our capabilities of human beings to influence or even understand.

All that as long as the industrial system can keep the great being alive. Just as the Roman Emperors are gone by now, even Gods have their Götterdämmerung. And what will be, will be because it had to be.

(*) The Christian Church was the first epistemic empire in Europe, setting up a governance system based not anymore on money, but on the monopoly of data and information. Since it would have been unthinkable to teach everyone to read Latin, the Church had the monopoly of the knowledge of the holy scriptures. Hence, it had a near-monopoly of communication and, as a consequence, of governance. In parallel, in the Middle East, Islamic countries were going through a similar evolution, but they maintained a gold-based economy, so they didn’t develop the equivalent of the imperial Christian church.

The Epistemic Empire of the Christian Church was a fine-tuned machine that worked well for centuries, then troubles started when new precious metal mines were discovered in Eastern Europe. That made it possible to pay soldiers again and it led Charlemagne to recreate a military-based European Empire in 800 AD. The Church acquiesced to the new entity and the Pope himself crowned the new emperor — hoping to be able to control the new state just as it had managed to control the many small European statelets.

But Europe was too small for two Empires. Gradually, the balance of power tilted against the Epistemic Empire in favor of the reborn military powers of Europe. The decisive blow to the Church’s power was when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and made it available for everyone. Maybe Luther knew that he, alone, was bringing down a whole Empire, surely a remarkable feat. Then, the new European powers proceeded with killing and enslaving one nation after the other until, some four centuries later, they were dominating the world.

(**) Hyerobiont is a term that I coined expressly for this post. It describes an organization orthogonal to that of a holobiont. A holobiont is created by horizontal (paritetic) network connections, while a hyerobiont has vertical (hierarchical) connections. A holobionts is homeostatically stable. A hyerobiont is allostatically stable. In other words, a holobiont reacts to a perturbation in real time by moving in such a way to damp its effects: it has no separate control unit. A hyerobiont, instead, may plan ahead and avoid the perturbation before it appears: it does have a separate control unit (a “brain”). A holobiont practices Judo, a hyerobiont practices Kyudo. Purely horizontal holobionts exist, purely vertical hyerobionts may exist. We, humans, are a mix of the two: a brain-endowed hyerobiont (aka organism) that coexists with a holobiont formed by the microbiota of the system. There are many more possible combinations, holobionts and hyerobionts are both fractal. The Goddess Gaia is said to be a nearly pure holobiont, but she may have tricks we don’t know about.

(***) I noted in a previous post how “something” has appeared in the world’s military arena that was preventing the kind of reckless behavior that Western Governments had been indulging in for the first two decades of the 21st century. During this period, bombing the country of the evil guy of the year seemed to carry only benefits and no risks — and it was a lot of fun (except for the bombed people, of course). Strangely, though, from around 2011, that was not done any longer. In 2012 Obama had already announced that he was going to bomb Syria, but he stepped back. And, from then on, it was deafening silence. In July 2021, NATO carried out the “Sea Breeze” operation, right in front of the Russian forces in Crimea. It was the perfect moment to simulate an incident, a false flag, and that would have been the start of WWW3. Surely, plenty of people wanted exactly that. And yet, as I am writing, the Sea Breeze exercise is over from yesterday. Everything went on in total silence and nothing happened. What could that “something” be that stops all wars before they start? It is just a guess, but……

Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy. He is also a member of the Club of Rome and the author of several books on the future of the world