eNewsChannels COLUMN: It is easy to say ‘Google it’ because that company has virtually defined the online experience of searching for, well, everything. But there are profound implications in turning over so much hidden power to one company and Siva Vaidhyanathan is not afraid to explore a lot of them.
This book needs to be approached with a certain amount of caution. Not because it is taking on Google, a company that could virtually wipe one’s entire history from the Internet if it wanted to do so, but because the author is such a whack-job in the area of copyright.
As a Professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, you might expect him to uphold the principles of the Constitution. Yet within the first 40 pages of the book he has belittled those who stand in favor of intellectual property and referred to copyright disparagingly as a “state-granted monopoly” and “an instrument of political censorship.”
However, professors are not fired for writing foolish sentences and lawyers are not disbarred for attacking the law in print. Nor are authors and lecturers penalized for the hypocrisy of assaulting copyright while publishing books that are, you guessed it, firmly protected by copyright notices.
So it is a complete surprise to discover that “The Googlization of Everything” is well-written, lively, and thought-provoking. Vaidhyanathan gets right to the heart of the matter in his Preface:
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.
Vaidhyanathan writes in an exuberant style that might even be called headstrong if it were not so breathtaking and full of interesting ideas. The forward rush of each chapter is quite enjoyable, although sometimes in need of a stronger copy editor (virtually the same sentence appears twice in his otherwise nifty Preface, and there are sections of the book that veer into other topics; consistently stimulating, but off-target).
In the Beginning was the Web
The popularization of the World Wide Web may have seemed like a gift from heaven at first, but very soon it became damaged by the forces of hell. Early users of the Web were often dismayed that this cool tool began bringing with it elements of chaos, seediness, and hopelessness. “Then came Google,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “Google was clean. It was pure. It was simple. It accepted no money for ranking one page higher in a search than another.”
All well and good, but in a few short years, Google was seemingly everywhere. It is a noun. It is a verb. It is into commerce. It is into politics. It is into . . . you. It learns about you. It knows you. And it makes money off you.
We — our fancies, fetishes, predilections, and preferences — are what Google sells to advertisers. When we use Google to find out things on the Web, Google uses our Web searches to find out things about us.
Among many interesting statistics in the book is the fact that, in 2008, the Google empire earned $21 billion from online ads. That was all but three percent of its total revenue.
Rise of the Aptocrats
Vaidhyanathan writes about Walter Kirn’s theory of the Aptocracy, whereby only the demonstrably gifted shall rise in modern society. Would that it were always true. But it ain’t, as Vaidhyanathan points out:
Success in America no longer depends so heavily on social status, ethnicity, or gender. Those things still matter, and once in a while a stunningly incompetent exception circumvents the Aptocracy and rises to power, as George W. Bush did.
For and Against
Balanced against Google woes, both potential and actual, are observations of the many excellent points about the organization, although some of them are backhanded compliments: “…the institutions waiting in the wings to assume governance of the Web, such as commercial telecommunication companies and media conglomerates, are definitely less trustworthy than Google is today.” And some have an ominous note built-in: “Google has ensured that the Web is a calmer, friendlier, less controversial and frightening medium — as long as one used Google to navigate it.”
Don’t Be Evil
There is a fair amount of space devoted to the implications and realities behind the Google motto, “Don’t be evil.” Suffice to say, there is a great deal to be discussed here, from the company helping government censorship in China to the massive use of energy running its server farms, from punishing firms via inferior search results to the arbitrary raising of ad rates, from poor treatment of contract workers to the retention of private information on individuals and companies. Not to mention providing easy access to weapon-making instructions, scam operations, and even computer viruses.
As for the motto itself:
Most of Google’s management has explained away the phrase as a useful standard, a measure that they may invoke as a test of a business decision, but not an answer to any particular dilemma. They argue that the phrase was meant to be a reminder that a firm founded by and for idealistic engineers should not become just another company — or worse, another Microsoft.
Human Knowledge Project
Vaidhyanathan concludes the book with a call for the design and development of “an information ecosystem that would outlive Google,” which would:
…identify a series of policy challenges, infrastructure needs, philosophical insights, and technological challenges with a single realizable goal in mind: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. I am sure Google won’t mind if we copy its mission statement.
In addition to his elated writing style, Vaidhyanathan is a man of concepts, which makes for a refreshing read. Bouncing around with his own views are those of Thorsten Veblen, Louis C.K., Sir Francis Bacon, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges, Dante Alighieri, Arthur C. Clarke, and, of course, Niccolo Machiavelli.
On pages 8-11 is Vaidhyanathan’s own outline of the book, chapter by chapter. Yup, he is so helpful that he has written his own Cliff Notes right in the front of the volume. At the end, there are 413 citations in the Notes, and a 9-page Index.
“The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)”
by Siva Vaidhyanathan
University of California Press, Hardcover, 280 pages, ISBN: 9780520258822, $26.95; PDF E-Book, ISBN: 9780520948693, $26.95; ePUB, ISBN: 9780520948693, $26.95.
Article is Copr. © 2011 by John Scott G, and originally published on eNewsChannels.com – all rights reserved. No fee or other consideration was provided to the author of this original article by the book author or its publisher/agents.