Yeah, sure, we all know the Seattle Times’ editorialists resentfully and tediously hate Google, but the metaphor they’ve chosen for their latest screed is filled with such delicious, unintentional irony, it is simply irresistible: “Google, the whale to be harpooned.”
Coincidentally, and inspired by a recent PBS documentary, I’m in the midst of reading Moby Dick, but you don’t have to get far into Herman Melville’s great American novel to recognize the parallels. If, as the editorial implies, Google is the leviathan, then that surely makes the Times the doomed whaling ship Pequod, and publisher Frank Blethen the embittered Captain Ahab, tragically bent on hunting down the beast that took his leg.
And I guess, as the chronicler of this tale of self-destruction, you might as well call me Ishmael.
Blethen’s editorial page, which a decade ago defended local Microsoft from calls for a court ordered breakup, now finds itself employing twisted logic to demand the same of Google. Yes, the bulk of Google’s services are free to consumers, the Times admits, but its profit margins from advertising are suspiciously high. And yes, through its automated auction system, advertisers set their own prices, but this too, we’re told, reeks of an abusive monopoly.
And yes, Google is a “mere minnow in the market for all advertising,” but, the Times narrowly insists, “in the market for Internet search advertising — the relevant market — Google is a whale.”
All this bobbing and bouncing… it’s enough to make you sea-sick.
By that same logic, the Times is the monopolistic whale of the Seattle newspaper market, HA is the Pequod, and I am the crazed Captain Ahab, vengefully thrusting my harpoon into the flesh of the thrashing, injured giant. Don’t think, as I sit here sipping my Starbucks, the comparison hasn’t occurred to me… a metaphorical bond between me and Frank, that I’m guessing he would find unsettling, if not unseemly.
But unlike Blethen, I have no five-generation-old family business to sink, and no crew to take down with me, and so whatever the parallels between my obsession and his, his is surely the more tragic. And unlike Blethen, I am arguably an agent of change, rather than its seemingly inevitable victim.
It is instructive to note that despite its later renown, in its day Moby Dick was a critical and popular flop. Melville, who at first believed he had written his masterpiece, died in obscurity, the unfortunate casualty of bad timing, for by the time the novel was published, the once great whaling industry that literally greased the wheels of American expansion was already giving way to the age of petroleum, and quickly fading into the recesses of the popular imagination.
Even had Ahab conquered his nemesis and survived their final encounter, his way of life would not; within a decade or two, a centuries old whaling tradition was all but displaced by oil and coal and the massive industrialization these modern energy sources made possible. Likewise, the Times could live to see hated advertising competitors like Google and Craigslist harpooned by the courts, as it has frequently advocated, and still not survive the relentless tide of progress that is sweeping through its own industry.
So obsessed are the Blethens with the notion that Google is stealing their revenue and undermining journalism as a profession, that they even seem willing to abandon their usual steadfast free market ideology in rhetorical pursuit of their prey, much in the same way that the vengeful Ahab fatefully cast away his Quaker pacifism. And just as Melville himself seemed oblivious to the imminent demise of the whaling industry, even as he enshrined himself as its most famous chronicler, the Blethens just can’t seem to wrap their collective mind around the economic, technological and cultural shifts that are transforming their family business.
In the end, it is not Moby Dick who kills Ahab, but rather his own harpoon, a loop in the rope catching the doomed captain’s neck, and dragging him into the abyss along with the injured whale.
“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
One can almost imagine Captain Blethen yelling Ahab’s famous curse as he thrusts his harpoon… just before he himself is swallowed up by the seas of change.