Going Google

Google celebrates its fourteenth birthday today. If a teenager in years, Google is the patriarch of search engines and, as described by Randall Stross in Planet Google (2008), mothercorp to all at Googleplex headquarters near San Jose, California:

Free onsite medical care is provided by two full-time doctors who are on staff. Subsidized massages are available on the premises. A company child care center is nearby and various services are provided, for a fee, right at the workplace: personal trainers, haircuts, a laundry, dry cleaning pickup, bike repairs, and car-wash and oil-change services.… Little wonder that Google would be named in 2007 and 2008 by Fortune magazine as the Number One Best Company to Work For.

Google’s pervasiveness is precisely the problem, says Sida Vaidhyanathan in The Googlization of Everything (2011). Vaidhyanathan’s book opens with a quotation, italicized below, taken from this passage in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840), which describes a government of despotic paternalism:

…it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from coming into being; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

The subtitle of The Googlization of Everything is “And Why We Should Worry.” After exploring the “infrastructural imperialism” by which the company has become master of all it surveys, Vaidhyanathan warns of the brave new Google world already upon us:

In general, where once Google specialized in delivering information to satiate curiosity, now it does so to facilitate consumption. “Search” as a general concept of intellectual query has mutated into a process of “browsing” for goods and services. Where once users were guided to the unfamiliar, now targeted and customized searches are the default, thus driving us towards the familiar and comfortable. Where once the collection of incoming links generated search results (as imperfect as that system was), now Google…is starting to recognize brands as indicators of quality in search results.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.