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Book Review – The Googlization of Everything

January 14, 2013 by and tagged , , ,

I was initially suspicious of this book because of its title and how reminiscent it is of similarly coined words, like “McDonalization” or “Disneyification”. But, I finally picked up Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) because, after all, we should all know more about Google. It has become such a major part of our Internet experience that it deserves some critical examination.

And critical it is, right off the bat:

“This book describes the nature of that devotion as well as a growing apostasy, and it suggests ways we might live better with Google once we see it as a mere company rather than as a force for good and enlightenment in the world.

We may see Google as a savior, but it rules like Caesar. The mythology of the Web leads us to assume that it is a wild, ungovernable, and thus ungoverned realm. This could not be further from the truth. There was a power vacuum in the Web not so long ago, but we have invited Google to fill it. Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.

This book argues that we should influence—even regulate—search systems actively and intentionally, and thus take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge. We must build the sort of online ecosystem that can benefit the whole world over the long term, not one that serves the short-term interests of one powerful company, no matter how brilliant.” (Loc. 67).

Vaidhyanathan’s also acknowledges the great deal of good that Google has done to our Internet experience. We should just never forget that, despite its “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Google is a for-profit corporation that feeds on data that we provide.

But what is the Googlization of Everything?

“Googlization affects three large areas of human concern and conduct: “us” (through Google’s effects on our personal information, habits, opinions, and judgments); “the world” (through the globalization of a strange kind of surveillance and what I’ll call infrastructural imperialism); and “knowledge” (through its effects on the use of the great bodies of knowledge accumulated in books, online databases, and the Web).” (Loc. 141)

In that sense, Google is way more than a search engine. The multiplication of its applications means that one’s experience of the Internet may be completely inseparable and indistinguishable from Google if one uses Gmail for emails, Youtube as video service, Reader for aggregator, Google + for social networking, and Google Docs, as well as Nexus devices. Then you are thoroughly embedded in the Google universe.

The price to pay for access to all these goodies that truly do make our lives easier is our privacy, our surrendering to this private and corporate aspect of the surveillance society. And that is Vaidhyanathan’s main critique of Google, how it contributes to our loss of privacy and our invisible surrendering of our data if we want the ordered experience of the Internet rather than the chaotic mess it would be without Google. After all, we are not Google’s users. We are its product.

In effect, for Vaidhyanathan, Google is doing what should have been (and still could and should be) the job of an organization (or organizations) dedicated to the public good. But there was never much political will to establish that, so, Google stepped in and ordered the Internet for us. This public failure is a BIG problem.

But Google’s actions, algorithms and practices are far from neutral and that is something we should be concerned about considering how dominant it is:

“If Google is the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it has remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases (valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of presentation) are built into its algorithms.12 And those biases affect how we value things, perceive things, and navigate the worlds of culture and ideas.” (Loc. 233)

An interesting perspective that Vaidhyanathan uses to examine Google is what he calls the Technocultural Imagination (not coincidentally reminiscent of C. Wright Mills’s Sociological Imagination). The technocultural imagination strives to answer the following questions:

“Which members of a society get to decide which technologies are developed, bought, sold, and used? What sorts of historical factors influence why one technology “succeeds” and another fails? What are the cultural and economic assumptions that influence the ways a technology works in the world, and what unintended consequences can arise from such assumptions? Technology studies in general tend to address several core questions about technology and its effects on society (and vice versa): To what extent do technologies guide, influence, or determine history? To what extent do social conditions and phenomena mold technologies? Do technologies spark revolutions, or do concepts like revolution raise expectations and levels of effects of technologies?” (Loc. 247)

Those are indeed central questions and they are often ignored in the cyber-utopian literature.

And there is another rather ominous aspect to Google and its charismatic leaders:

“The company itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical and social questions in its way. It is run by and for engineers, after all. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system, yet to be fixed, or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or a nondistorting lens: it is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And, more important, as a publicly traded company, it must act in its shareholders’ short-term interests, despite its altruistic proclamations.” (Loc. 256)

At the same time, Google and its leaders provide ideological cover for the fall of the idea of public good (replaced by the fuzzy concept of corporate responsibility).

“Of course Google is regulated, and Schmidt knows it. Google spends millions of dollars every year ensuring it adheres to copyright, patent, antitrust, financial disclosure, and national security regulations. Google is promoting stronger regulations to keep the Internet “neutral,” so that Internet service providers such as telecommunication companies cannot extort payments to deliver particular content at a more profitable rate. But we have become so allergic to the notion of regulation that we assume brilliant companies just arise because of the boldness and vision of investors and the talents of inventors. We actually think there is such a thing as a free market, and that we can liberate private firms and people from government influence. We forget that every modern corporation—especially every Internet business—was built on or with public resources. And every party that does business conforms to obvious policy restrictions.” (Loc. 923)

The other social issue relating to Google then is what Vaidhyanathan calls techno-fundamentalism: the belief that all social problems have technological solutions (an iPad for every pupil in the US!).

After these general framing comments, Vaidhyanathan goes into deeper details of Google’s activities whether it’s the search algorithms and monetization system, Streetview or Google Books as well as the Google Buzz fiasco related to a central aspect of Google’s way of doing things: the power of default (all systems are turned on by default and one has to actually opt out of those, but at the cost of degraded Internet experience). All of these relate to the massive issue of privacy.

For Vaidhyanathan, we have five privacy interfaces that we have to negotiate and maintain in order to preserve our privacy and reputation (among other things):

  1. Person to peer: our family and friends
  2. Person to power: our teachers, employers, professional superiors, administrators. There is information about us we generally don’t want to share with them.
  3. Person to firm / corporation: the information we agree / don’t agree to share with the businesses we patronize.
  4. Person to state: the state gets to know some things about us through our tax returns, car registration forms, census responses,  immigration information, etc.
  5. Person to public: this last one is the least understood but has become crucial as we live our lives online.

“At this interface, which is now located largely online, people have found their lives exposed, their names and faces ridiculed, and their well-being harmed immeasurably by the rapid proliferation of images, the asocial nature of much ostensibly “social” Web behavior, and the permanence of the digital record. Whereas in our real social lives we have learned to manage our reputations, the online environments in which we work and play have broken down the barriers that separate the different social contexts in which we move.” (Loc. 1806)

Of course, one of the issues is that data collected in one corner of the Internet usually does not stay there. It is not simply that the government can access it but also other “partners” of the companies we use. as a result, the Googlized subject, as Vaidhyanathan puts it, voluntarily surrenders her information – in bits and pieces – as she goes about her business (public and private) to a variety of public and private entities, each getting its relevant chunk of data. The Panopticon has become a public-private partnership on steroids. This segmented subject fits the needs of market segmentation where customization is essential.

Vaidhyanathan also goes into some details in the controversy related to Google and its Chinese adventure to demonstrate the uneasy relationship between such companies and non-democratic regimes and to renew his plea for a truly global civil society and a global public sphere (obligatory invocation of Habermas included) and the ways in which Google is not contributing to that.

“But the most significant gap separating potential citizens of the world is not necessarily access to Internet technologies and networks. It is the skills needed to participate in the emerging global conversation. Being able to use a search engine, click on a link, and even post to Facebook does not require much skill or investment, but producing video, running an influential blog, participating in the Wikipedia community, hosting a proxy server, and even navigating between links and information sources on the Internet demand much more  money and knowledge than most people in the world have. To acquire such skills, people need at least minimal free time and significant means, and many with disabilities are excluded regardless of education or means. The barriers to entry for such productions are lower than ever in human history, but they are far from free, open, and universal.

(…)

Despite its global and universalizing ambitions and cosmopolitan outlook, Google’s search functions are not effective in connecting and unifying a diverse world of Web users. Instead, its carefully customized services and search results reinforce the fragmentary state of knowledge that has marked global consciousness for centuries. Over time, as users in a diverse array of countries train Google’s algorithms to respond to specialized queries with localized results, each place in the world will have a different list of what is important, true, or “relevant” in response to any query.” (Loc. 2601)

Vaidhyanathan also spends a great deal of space discussing the controversy over Google Books and the legal intricacies that might lead to a settlement between publishers and Google in the context of the fear of the privatization of knowledge if Google were to replace public libraries. This leads Vaidhyanathan to the exposition of what seems clearly to be he thinks should be the public response to Google: the Human Knowledge Project.

This is a very pleasant read but my main issue with the book is this: it already feels dated. Google has already evolved since this book was published. As a result, some of the controversies mentioned by Vaidhyanathan are somewhat forgotten, and other issues are not mentioned: not much on the Buzz and Wave fiascos, nothing on G+, nothing on Vevo.  Things seem to be ever-changing for Google:

Google is abusing its dominant place in the search market, according to Europe’s antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia.

In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Google could be forced to change the way that it provides and displays search results or face antitrust charges for “diverting traffic,” in the words of Almunia, referring to Google’s self-serving treatment to its own search services.

Despite the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s move earlier this month to let off Google with a slap on the wrist – albiet, a change to its business practices, a move that financially wouldn’t dent Google in the short term but something any company would seek to avoid — the European Commission is looking to take a somewhat different approach: take its time, and then hit the company hard.”

And last December (which kinda seems to prove Vaidhyanathan’s point:

“Google’s Eric Schmidt went all out yesterday, saying he was “very proud” of his company’s tax “structure”, and that “it’s called capitalism.”

Inevitably, this had led to calls for a boycott of Google until it starts to pay its fair share of corporation tax.

Of course, these calls have also marked out part of the folly of such boycotts. It’s easy to boycott Starbucks: within 30 seconds walk of most UK branches you’ll find more coffee. We are basically a nation of people selling coffee to each other with a bit of banking on the side.

Google is… harder. If you use any of its web services, you are likely to feel locked in (everyone knows your gmail address! Think how much work it would be to change your address books!); if you have an Android phone, you are probably contracted in without even a choice to leave; and if you use their web search, you’ll probably have finished the search and clicked on a link before you even remember that you were supposed to be boycotting in the first place.

On top of that, of course, a boycott doesn’t look like it would be as effective for Google as it was for Starbucks. Within days of the first allegations about the coffee company coming out, it had posted an open letter on its website; and then even before the big UK Uncut protests, it had already agreed to radically restructure the way it declares its taxes. Comparing that to Schmidt’s bombastic comments, we can infer that Google might put up a bit more of a fight.

The thing is, people ought to be boycotting Google, especially their main cash cow, web search. Not because of tax avoidance, but because it makes a terrible product used only through exactly the same inertia which will kill any political action.

Once upon a time, Google search was the unambiguous best. Its page-rank system, which replaced manually editing search results with an ingenious methodology which used links to a site as guarantors of that site’s quality, meant that it gave more accurate results than many of its now-defunct (or nearly so) competitors like Alta Vista or Yahoo! Search; its simple UI made it easier to use, as did its massive step up in speed, a fact reflected in its show-off display of how many hundredths of a second the search took.

Most importantly, Google refused to offer paid placement, a relatively common practice at the time which mixed advertising with editorial content: companies would literally pay to appear in the search results for a given keyword.

Those principles lasted a long time; even when Google started “personalising” searches, it was still aimed at reducing bad results. Someone who always clicks on cars after searching for “golf” probably wants different results than someone who clicks on sports sites.

Then came Google+. Terrified by Facebook, the company launched a rival social network, and in an attempt to catch up, decided to leverage its existing businesses. Personalised searches are no longer based just on what you have previously searched for. They’re also based on your Google+ contacts, and what they’ve posted about and discussed.”

So, as necessary as this book is, (1) there is too much reference to faith, (2) it is in dire need of an update, and (3) I’m not convinced about the Human Knowledge Project and this needs an update too. Has it stayed as Vaidhyanathan’s dream of a global civil society or have there been developments? Without a new edition soon, this book, which should be important, is in danger of losing relevance even though it makes important points beyond the specific case of Google.

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