Eric Schmidt's manifesto

Wall_street_journal_pencil_drawing_eric_In yesterday's Financial Times, Google CEO Eric Schmidt articulated an Antonio Gramsci like manifesto in favor of the "democratisation of information". In "Let More Of The World Access The Web", Schmidt seeks to empower African schoolchildren to challenge the dominant elites by accessing information on the Internet:

"For centuries access to the world’s information – and the ability to communicate it – was controlled by the wealthy and the well educated. Today the internet has broken down many of the barriers that exist between people and information: effectively democratising access to human knowledge."

But Schmidt is wrong. He overvalues and misunderstands the history of information. And his Gramscian theory of the ideological hegemony of the dominant class, is probably anachronistic, even for such a revolutionary enclave such as the People's Republic of Mountain View.

The truth is much more prosaic. In previous centuries, access to the world's information was "controlled" by dusty/crusty librarians, little old ladies who had little better to do with their time than checking out books. The wealthy and well educated were much too smart to want to "control" information. They were making money, seducing each others wives, buying land, fighting wars and colonizing Africa.

And before the little old ladies, there were priests, and before the priests there were scribes. Information had little value, either symbolically or in practical terms. Only the losers, the socio-economic and cultural lumpen proletariat, associated themselves with something so mundane, so useless, as raw information.

Schmidt should read Thorstein Veblen on this. Veblen's book, now published as a Penguin Classic, is called The Theory of the Leisure Class.

As it happens, Veblen's universe has been turned on its head. today's winners -- the Eric Schmidts of the world  -- have a near-monopoly on information. The old leisure class has become the new information class.

What Eric Schmidt doesn't tell us, however, is that as more of the world accesses the web, he wins. Schmidt has a BA from Princeton and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He's a multi billionaire too -- one of world's richest men. Schmidt is, in Weberian terms, an ideal-type version of the "wealthy and well educated" elite who now "control" information. The Google CEO personally benefits financially from every African schoolchild who gets on the web. Those web browsing African kids will put money into Schmidt's pocket.

If Antonio Gramsci was around today, he might write a manifesto, reminding us of the continued relevance of his theories about hegemonic cultural elites. The interesting question is whether this manifesto would appear in the Financial Times.