Cassius: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at sometime were masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
—Julius Caesar I.2, 137–142
A lot of people, me included, like Google. Compared with other computer titans, and especially as compared with weary giants of flesh and steel, it’s a company that does very little wrong. It has outsize ambitions that shame the small-minded local optimizations other businesses take on. It has a long-view public-minded spirit of positive change sorely lacking in so many other quarters. It redefines the limits of the possible and the imaginable even as it takes on some of the hardest problems of our time. What’s not to like?
But consider the story of another conquering hero. The late Roman Republic was suffocating under its political system by the time Gaius Julius Caesar came on stage. Inequality was the order of the day, but the Senate had become all but incapable of taking seriously the structural problems the nation faced. Aristocrats contended with each other for power while the plebs slipped further into poverty.
Against this backdrop, Caesar married personal ambition to public achievement. He offered the plebeians much-needed land reform; he offered Rome new lands and new riches. What did it matter if he secured his consulship through bribery and put his land bill through by having the crowd dump dung on his opponents and forcibly exclude them from the crucial vote? Who could object to a dictatorship for ten years or a dictatorship for life? He got results. Relentlessly practical Caesar fixed the calendar, reformed the welfare grain system, extended citizenship to Rome’s Italian neighbors, cleaned up the government and the civil service, and settled veterans back to civilian life. Caesar left Rome far better than he found it—the little matter of legitimate political processes aside.
We shouldn’t blame Caesar alone for the end of the Roman Republic. His enemies did more than he did to force an all-or-nothing struggle; his assassins opened the floodgates of a war that would end only when Augustus definitely took power as an unambiguous emperor. But still, the most proximate causes of the end of the Republic were Caesar’s ambition and the populace’s support of it. That’s what Caesarism is: supporting the strongman who can break through the political logjam and make the chariots—or the search queries—run on time.
That’s why I worry when people say we should set Google loose on all our problems. Some things ought to be our responsibility to fix, ourselves. That’s why I worry when people say we should all be more like Google. Jeff Jarvis asks, “What Would Google Do?” but Caesar was treated as divine in his lifetime, too. And that’s why I worry about my own enthusiasm for the way the Google Book Search settlement use a class-action end run to make copyright-orphaned books available. Our political processes have tried, and failed, to break that stalemate. They may be unreliable and corrupt, but they are our political processes, and we dare not give up on them. The fault, dear readers, is not in Google, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.