A Puzzling Announcement
From a think tank, Jigsaw is now a technology incubator with a mission “to tackle the toughest geopolitical challenges, from countering violent extremism to thwarting online censorship to mitigating the threats associated with digital attacks.”
John Cohen, who previously led Google Ideas, will now serve as Jigsaw’s president. His background as a former member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, serving under Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, certainly fits well with Jigsaw’s current direction.
Under Cohen, Jigsaw’s product lineup consists of Project Shield (which uses Google’s technology to protect websites from digital attacks), Investigative Dashboard (which gives journalists tools to follow the money and uncover international money laundering), Password Alert (password protection aimed at journalists, activists, and human rights groups), and Digital Attack Map (mapping daily attacks against the websites of newspapers, businesses and charities).
From “Don’t Be Evil” to “Do The Right Thing”
When Alphabet abandoned Google’s previous mantra of “Don’t be evil” for the dangerously ambiguous “Do the right thing,” not everyone was on board with the rebranding.
While Schmidt sees the meaning of Jigsaw as a recognition that the world is “a complex puzzle of physical and digital challenges” which requires “collaborative problem solving and that any puzzle is best solved with many different people and groups looking for the missing pieces,” Julia Powles of The Guardian thinks it “harks back to the origins of jigsaws in the late eighteenth century, as dissected maps of the British empire—cultural objects of imperial ideology.”
We understand implicitly that information is derivative; that the trace is not the person; that the map is not the territory. But the business of tech is to collapse these distinctions. And this is why Jigsaw’s involvement in geopolitics is so problematic. Alphabet wants to open, flatten, map and mine the world and its people. Along the way, variations in cultural and social sensibilities, in history and legal traditions, in the demands of institutions both legitimate and illegitimate—these are all frictions; problems to be solved.
Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange meanwhile hasn’t really been shy in expressing his skepticism toward Google Ideas (Jigsaw pre-rebranding) and its allegedly shady connection with the US Department of State in his piece for Newsweek:
Google Ideas is bigger, but it follows the same game plan. Glance down the speaker lists of its annual invite-only get-togethers, such as “Crisis in a Connected World” in October 2013. Social network theorists and activists give the event a veneer of authenticity, but in truth it boasts a toxic piñata of attendees: U.S. officials, telecom magnates, security consultants, finance capitalists and foreign-policy tech vultures like Alec Ross (Cohen’s twin at the State Department).
But whether Jigsaw is good or evil—however one defines good and evil—as Schmidt writes in his announcement, they are just getting started. All we can do is wait and see how they put the pieces of the puzzle together.