Friday night I was hanging out with billionaires and royalty, and was reminded of Dorothy Parker’s quip, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
I was at the book launch of How Google Works by Eric Schmidt, the boss of Google, a man worth $8.3 billion. Princess Beatrice was there, “a vision of glamour”—according to the Express. Jemima Khan, Nat Rothschild and Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend (the one who sat on the ‘black woman chair’) attended, along with various other members of the 0.0000000000000001%.
It was at the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone, London, which is where celebrities go for dinner. The bar area has a fully-grown tree, inside. There was free, unlimited champagne, and waitresses who would take my glass and give me a new one if they found it less than half full. These are austere times.
How I got in shall remain a secret, but I wasn’t invited. My connection to the event has to do with editorial work I do for the publisher of Julian Assange’s new book, When Google Met WikiLeaks.
The background to the story is this: In 2012 Eric Schmidt, the Google guy, published a book called The New Digital Age for which he interviewed Julian Assange, among others. The book is, unintentionally, a frightening dystopian sci-fi horror—an insight into the imperialist mind-set of Google. Last month, partly in response, Julian Assange published When Google Met WikiLeaks. It has two main arguments: 1) Google is deeply enmeshed with US foreign policy; 2) it’s not enough to focus on state spying any more—private sector corporations, and especially Google, are up to their necks in it.
By coincidence, Eric Schmidt has written an unrelated new book, How Google Works, which came out at exactly the same time as Assange’s and, curiously, has almost exactly the same cover. (Assange’s publisher, OR Books, suspected their design had been plagiarised, but decided imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)
Schmidt’s is one of those ‘how to’ corporate management books. I haven’t read it, but for a short time I possessed a copy on Friday night. I opened it at random to read one sentence that said: “Specialize: sometimes the best way to grow a platform is to find a speciality that has the potential to expand.” That was enough.
The fact that the two books have come out at the same time means that whenever Schmidt does a publicity interview for his book he is asked about Julian Assange’s view that Google is “a privatized version of the NSA.” Schmidt’s peevish responses—“Virtually everything Julian says is not correct”; “he is, of course, writing from the, shall we say, luxury lodgings of the local embassy in London”—belie his frustration that the smooth sailing of his book tour has been disrupted by this political iceberg.
So when it emerged that Schmidt was in London for his book launch, I thought it might be amusing if I went along in a t-shirt emblazoned with WikiLeaks in the Google colours.
I realised, while waiting outside the venue at the start of the evening, that I was somewhat underdressed. I watched the doormen rush to let passengers out of the chauffeur-driven cars that pulled up smoothly. Immaculately dressed people emerged from the vehicles, their importance underlined by the way they strode directly into the party without so much as a smile for the staff.
This was a society event, a “who’s who,” according to the Evening Standard. It was hosted by two Bright Young Things with an unquestionable talent for smiling in photographs. One of them describes himself as a “LEGEND” on his Twitter bio. As far as I could make out, for these two and their exalted guests, the evening consisted of a succession of brief exchanges each ending with a pose for the official photographer (who took one look at me and moved on).
I spoke to a very nice yacht guy. He looks after the boats of a Gulf royal family and said that, although they do live in luxury, it’s not as over the top as people think—their aeroplanes aren’t lined with gold or anything. He rested his hand on the tree and got sap stuck to it. “That’s a real tree,” he said.
A glitzy ditsy woman pointed at my t-shirt and said, “Ah, you work for Google!”
“No, it says WikiLeaks.”
“Oh, I love Wikipedia! It’s so great.”
“Wikipedia is different from WikiLeaks.”
“I know that.”
Then there was a man who is booked to go into space with Virgin Galactic. I hope he has a lovely time and decides to stay.
I asked a young guy in a royal blue suit if he could take a picture of me, using my phone. He acted as if I had given him a parking ticket. Three presses of the shutter button was the maximum he could do.
“I don’t like WikiLeaks. Don’t like any leaks,” he said.
“You must really hate the Obama administration then. They leak.”
“I’m not going to get into a political conversation tonight.”
Suddenly Eric Schmidt himself was next to me, signing copies of his book. I had a cheeky idea. I gave him the copy I was holding and said:
“Could you make this out to Julian Assange?”
He looked at me over his glasses. “No,” he said, and walked off. It was bad tempered. I’ve never had a billionaire turn me down before.
Then the two beaming hosts called everyone’s attention for the speeches. Still wearing fixed smiles, they gave off that particular combination of entitlement and blankness peculiar to the elite. If the eyes are the windows to the soul then theirs must be double-glazed with the curtains drawn. “They look thick,” my companion said, putting it more succinctly.
“Our friend Eric writes books much faster than we can read them,” one joked, and I don’t doubt it.
I was trying to get up the nerve to ask Schmidt a question. Actually I was terrified because I planned to ask: “In 2011 you told Julian Assange to his face that you were ‘sympathetic’ to his vision. Recently you told ABC News that he is ‘very paranoid’. What has changed in between, except that on the issue of surveillance Assange has been vindicated and Google has been implicated?”
That would have spelled the end of the free champagne for me, but no questions were taken. Instead, after a very short speech by Schmidt about how wonderful everyone was, they had a violinist.
One possible reason for Schmidt not taking any questions is that he was in a room full of people who had no interest whatsoever in his book. I’m sure they all believe that such events serve an important function—enhancing their reputations, their financial connections, or whatever—but mostly I think they just like showing off. This was the very pinnacle of the social pyramid—the ultra-rich and the highly visible, there to be seen to be there. It was professional socialising. I noticed that some guests slinked out once they had been snapped by the official photographer, an efficient social transaction neatly executed.
The most striking thing was that none of the people I eavesdropped on or talked to seemed to have the slightest bit of intellectual curiosity. They were very good at talking about themselves, their business, their investments, foundations, charities, yachts and space trips, but any mention of things outside their immediate experience, anything political for instance, and they shut down, shifted around, said something jaw-droppingly naïve or just banal.
I mentioned previously that I had a copy of Schmidt’s book only briefly. Copies were placed on the tables for people to take. Before I went to the toilet (where, incidentally, the vast urinals were filled with ice cubes, an opulent touch ultimately undermined as they were melted by piss), I put down my book, along with a copy of Julian Assange’s book, on a table. When I came back neither was there. It makes me smile to imagine that some rich person somewhere went home with Julian Assange’s book instead of Schmidt’s. Unfortunately though, if they think it’s Schmidt’s book, they will probably never read it.
Alex Nunns tweets at @alexnunns