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Beware of Google bearing gifts

Google is not known for self-sacrifice. That is why New York should be more skeptical of its latest ‘free’ offer

Earlier this week, Google opened their temporary “Grow with Google New York City Learning Center” on the first floor of the company’s Chelsea offices. The “pop-up” space embodies techno-optimism: well-lit classrooms with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, decorated in neutrals with occasional pops of primary colors, and well-stocked with Google Chromebooks. For five months, the technology company will provide free and open-to-the-public classes on topics like “Manage Projects More Effectively with Online Tools” and “Make Your Website Work For You.”

The vast majority of classes are based on Google products: Learn to manage projects with Google Sheets; get your business online with Google My Business; discover new job opportunities with Google Search. In other words, Google is further entrenching their business monopoly under the pretence of helping entrepreneurs and job seekers. The company is  cynically deploying the American dream of hard work and the self-made success story for its own benefit, expecting New Yorkers to thank them for the opportunity to help make Google even richer and more powerful.

But, you say, knowing how to use Google products effectively is a great and marketable skill! Why shouldn’t we accept trickle-down education? Perhaps because to do so is to cede another facet of our society to a company that already has an outsized influence on our lives. The money spent on this glorified PR stunt could have been used to support the original programming of the initiative’s partner organizations, like the New York Public Library, which already offers free classes on subjects like basic computer skills, creating a resume, and social media marketing. Unlike the Google Learning Center, the NYPL won’t close up shop in five months.

Exploiting our fears

Enthusiasm for technology skills programs often stems from our collective anxieties about the future of work, or what will happen when the robots come for our jobs. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” goes this line of thinking. Google is subtly playing to these fears, to our desire to come out on top in a tech-dominated world.

“Tech related skills are essential for people looking for jobs in the modern economy, and Grow with Google will go far toward helping New Yorkers gain the expertise they need to thrive,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said in a statement given to a local reporter.

The cause-and-effect is made even more explicit in another article on a tech news website that covered the center’s launch. “The Google NYC Learning Center is part of the “Grow with Google” initiative, first launched in 2017,” AJ Dellinger writes for Engadget. “As part of that project, Google has pledged to spend $1 billion to help people adapt to an increasingly digital world and learn new skills that may place them in suitable jobs should their current career get wiped out by automation.” Even if Google hasn’t made such a promise, the company has let the misconception stand.

Google describes the material taught at the learning center as “digital skills.” The phrase is almost meaningless given that nearly every facet of our lives is mediated by digital devices, but it conveys the impression that the company is generously preparing New York workers for an automated future — the very future they’re doing their best to bring about.

The reality is not quite so cutting-edge: In addition to the Google product-based courses, there are classes like “Design an Effective Resume” and “Optimize Your Energy for High Performance” and “Coach Your Team to Success.” These are important and valuable skills, to be sure — but they are not “digital skills.” The marketing of this project is an ingenious and insidious bait and switch: offer glitzy and in-demand tech skills, but limit the actual courses to the walled garden of Google products, which has the additional benefit (for Google) of drumming up more customers for their services. The model is similar to Facebook’s Free Basics program, whereby Facebook subsidizes free internet access, but only to an incomplete and partial internet that is mediated by Facebook. Thus neophyte users conflate Facebook with the internet, and become captive users of the social media platform.

Google’s spokespeople have been more careful about what they promise. Ruth Porat, the Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Google and Alphabet, characterizes the pop-up shop as part of their commitment to “STEM education, workforce development and access to technology.” Porat describes Grow With Google as “our initiative to create economic opportunities for all Americans” — an ambitious goal that is so vague, it becomes meaningless.

Torrence Boone, the NYC site lead, describes Grow with Google as “our program to help individuals and small businesses gain the skills that can set them up for success, today and in the future.”

Digital robber barons

Even this seemingly innocuous statement is based on an outdated fantasy; it perpetuates the myth that it’s easy to pull yourself up by the bootstraps in contemporary America.

In the United States between 1978 and 2012, the number of startups (companies less than a year old) plummeted, their share of all businesses falling nearly 44 percent. While there are a number of factors at play, the most significant is that the largest players are crowding out the little guys. Google is among those big baddies. As Robert Levine reported for The Boston Globe, Google controls 90 percent of the search market. It operates the most popular online video site, mapping application, and internet browser. The company has used their market dominance to stifle the competition — by giving Google products preference in the Google search engine, for example.

As Open Markets Institute outlines in this explainer on “Entrepreneurship and Monopoly,” market concentration centralizes resources, talent, and money while squeezing out potential up-and-comers. This happens at the expense of the larger job market; nearly two-thirds of the nation’s net jobs created over the past 15 years have been at smaller companies.

In other words, we have a monopolistic company with a track record of self-promotion and stifling competition dispersing crumbs of knowledge to the unskilled masses, while creating more revenue opportunities for Google.

And what Google is offering truly is just crumbs — not even a full loaf of bread. Students are limited to just three classes at the learning center, a fact that is not mentioned either in Google’s promotional material or in any of the launch publicity. (Some partner organizations are using the space to hold their own private or public classes, which may run over three classes, but registration for those appears to be handled by the partners, not Google.) It’s not clear from the class registration page if prospective students are limited to just three classes over the five weeks, or if one can only sign up for three classes at one time. Either way, three classes on any topic is hardly sufficient to prepare someone for a job they weren’t already qualified to do.

Judging by the registration page, nearly every class at the learning center — through April 27 — is entirely full. There is clearly a demand for this kind of programming. Google worked with local partners like the New York Public Library to design course offerings that would be worthwhile for New Yorkers, but one might be justified in seeing this as a case of a tech giant having rebranded programming suggestions from local experts and taking the credit. But only a grinch would deny kids the opportunity to learn to code, so what’s the problem?

Gifts with strings attached

The gap between what has been promised and is provided is a problem, especially if Google is getting more from the programming than the company is giving. There is a question of what goodwill or favors initiatives like this will buy the company as they expand their New York City footprint. A $5 million investment in workforce development and job training was part of the deal with Amazon that fell through; what will Google get when they point to their generous free programming and say “Look what we did for you, NYC”? The same could be said for any of the cities and towns where Google has disseminated their “Grow With” programming, albeit over the course of weeks, not months.

Anxiety about the future of work is real. As local governments seek to prepare residents for potentially grim employment prospects, they will surely be tempted to cede responsibility to the tech giants. After all, local officials aren’t usually known for being particularly tech-savvy, so why not let the experts handle it?

But when those experts are monopolistic corporate giants upon which society is already reliant and beholden in so many ways, we cannot trust them to fix the problems that their business models exacerbate. Their track record proves they are unwilling to share information that will help anyone but themselves. If we’ve learned anything from the surveillance economy, it’s that nothing is ever really free.

Local government officials should follow Google’s example: look to public libraries to help create equitable paths to prosperity and ongoing education. Empower them and fund them. Don’t let the corporate monopolies stifling innovation and throttling the American dream determine the future of workforce development solely to their benefit and not ours.

Jessica McKenzie is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow her on Twitter @jessimckenzi.