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Rarely do I disagree with Cory Doctorow’s analyses, which are always highly enjoyable to read, both for their brilliant insights and their remarkable rhetoric punch. In his recent post on Google’s Chatbot Panic, however, things are a bit more complicated:

The really remarkable thing isn’t just that Microsoft has decided that the future of search isn’t links to relevant materials, but instead lengthy, florid paragraphs written by a chatbot who happens to be a habitual liar—even more remarkable is that Google agrees.

Microsoft has nothing to lose. It’s spent billions on Bing, a search-engine no one voluntarily uses. Might as well try something so stupid it might just work. But why is Google, a monopolist who has a 90+% share of search worldwide, jumping off the same bridge as Microsoft?

According to him, it looks inexplicable at first why Google isn’t trying to figure out how to exclude or fact-check LLM garbage, like they exclude or fact-check the “confident nonsense of the spammers and SEO creeps.” Referring to another article he wrote for The Atlantic, Doctorow makes the case that Google had one amazing idea, but then every product or service that wasn’t bought or otherwise acquired failed (with the lone exception of their “Hotmail clone”). This, he says, triggered a cognitive dissonance, i.e., that the true genius of this self-styled creative genius is “spending other people’s money to buy other people’s products and take credit for them.” This cognitive dissonance in turn triggered a pathology that drives these inexplicable decisions to follow trailing competitors over the cliff, like Bing now or Yahoo in the past:

Google has long exhibited this pathology. In the mid-2000s—after Google chased Yahoo into China and started censoring its search-results and collaborating on state surveillance—we used to say that the way to get Google to do something stupid and self-destructive was to get Yahoo to do it first. [Yahoo] going into China was an act of desperation after it was humiliated by Google’s vastly superior search. Watching Google copy Yahoo’s idiotic gambits was baffling.

But if you look at it from a different perspective, these maneuvers could actually appear clever. In game theory, there’s the “reversed follow-the-leader” strategy, most often illustrated with sailboat races, particularly Dixit and Nalebuff’s example of the 1983 America’s Cup finals in The Art of Strategy. The leading party (sailboat or company) copies the strategy of the trailing party (sailboat or company) as a surefire way to keep its leading position, even if that imitated strategy happens to be extremely stupid. If being the winner (or market leader) is the only thing that counts, it doesn’t matter whether the copied strategy is successful or unsuccessful or clever or stupid. Now, while that strategy doesn’t work when there’s not just one but two or more close competitors, the tech industry’s tendency to create duopolies and even quasi-monopolies naturally leads to situations where a reversed follow-the-leader strategy keeps making sense.

The drawbacks of this strategy are that winning doesn’t look spectacular or even clever; that it appears as if the winner has no confidence in their own strategy; and that imitating the runner-up might turn out to be very costly. But still, they win! And if that’s all there is to it, it’s just another form of pathology, and Doctorow’s analysis is on the mark after all.