The Googlization of Everything

By SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN

Ourenthusiastic embrace of the electronic resources that give us information,communication and community, all at lightning speed and with press-button ease,has changed the world. It changes governments too, as the contemporary MiddleEast shows. The rising curve of developments in this electronic wizardry hasgrown breathtakingly steeper in the last two decades, showing no sign ofleveling out.

At the forefront of someof these vertiginous developments is Google, a name so iconic that it hasbecome a verb. If you google “Google” you get over 6 billion results(Yahoo gets 4 billion, Microsoft’s Bing 250 million, Lycos 25 million,Altavista 16 million. You get the point: Google is way out ahead). The questionis: is the googlization of everything a uniformly good thing, or should weworry? The answer, according to media expert andprofessor Siva Vaidhyanathan in his TheGooglization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry): Yes, we should worry.

His chief reason is thatGoogle is an advertising business, which uses its information services as a wayof getting saleable information in return. It offers free access to informationso that it can profile the people searching for that information, and thenauction space to advertisers targeted at their profiles.

It is an ingeniousbusiness model, but, among other consequences, it raises for searchers thequestion whether Google’s ranking of information is an accurate reflection ofthe information’s reliability and utility. As Vaidhyanathan points out, Googlehas convinced us that we should trust it implicitly; most people rarely clickpast the first three results it offers. “This means,” he writes, “thatGoogle, the most flexible yet powerful information filter we use regularly,could come to exercise inordinate influence over our decisions and values.”Control knowledge, and you control people: Google would not be the first torealize the significance of that truth.

Moreover, the localizationof advertising means that Google does not pass on information about the worldat large but what interests locally, the kind nearby advertisers would preferus to have so that we can shop with them. Thus Google becomes, saysVaidhyanathan, “more about shopping than learning.”

Vaidhyanathan was promptedto examine “googlization”—having our information processed throughGoogle’s systems and algorithms before we get it—because when Google beganscanning millions of books in 2004 to create a vast digitized library, he sawtwo problems: that the aim of Google Books and its eBooks platform was in factnot to create a library but a bookstore, and secondly that it was interested inaccumulating a vast body of text that it could mine for the development ofsearch techniques.

Vaidhyanathan admires the innovationspromised by the latter aim, but what he is not so sure about is the increasedhold it gives Google over how its users view the world.

The most recentdevelopment in lawsuits initiated by publishers and authors against Google’sbooks digitization plan was a decision this month (March 2011) by a court inNew York, applauded by the U.S. Department of Justice, that the settlementGoogle offered to publishers and authors “would,” in the words ofjudge Denny Chin, “give Google a significant advantage over competitors,rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works withoutpermission.” It would also gain Google the profits from “orphan works”whose copyright holders cannot be located. For now, anyway, the Googlization ofour access to books has been hampered. But although this issue is what got Vaidhyanathan started, it is not his only concern.

Note first thatVaidhyanathan has not written a diatribe against Google itself, a company headmires for many reasons despite also having questions about it. Instead the bookis about “googlization,” that is, the development of reliance byinternet users on major search service providers—Google being the most major—who,because of their control of the process, have an influence over informationthat could be distorting or even, potentially and if it fell into the wronghands, malign.

Vaidhyanathan’s anxietiesare being exacerbated by the increasing pressure Google is itself feeling fromcompetitors in certain sectors, principally Facebook and Apple, with consumerattention switching to mobile devices which are locked-down to their providers.This is very different from the radically open Web model that Google took itsstart from. Every minute you spend on iPhone away from the Web means thatGoogle can’t harvest the information you are giving away about yourself on it.Facebook competes directly with Google for advertising and is making hugestrides. Of course, Google is changing in response: going mobile, and at thesame time, in reaction to Facebook, seeking to be more current and relevant byprivileging recent information over older information—and thus again distortingthe value of the information it ranks.

Note the concern here:that because information runs through the decision algorithms of the Googlesystem we cannot regard its handling of information as ideal or even merelyneutral, but only as a product of the algorithm’s workings. And because it isprofiling our identities and interests, our prejudices and desires, it istailoring information to us, just as it is auctioning space to advertisers withsomething specific to sell us because of our profiles.

One big thing someonecould say on Google’s behalf is that it stepped into a void and provided aninvaluable service to the world. There was no really effective way of findinginformation on the Internet until Google created it, remedying a market failureand reaping the just reward for doing so. Should we not clap our hands insteadof wringing them?

Vaidhyanathan’s reply isthat Google is filling too much of a gap, a gap that state institutions shouldfill. It would, he says—and surely rightly—be a fabulous investment for theworld and its future if governments got together and financed the building of aglobal digital library open to all. Only imagine if there were a truly public,independent, and neutral search engine for all information, ranking it purelyon reliability and usefulness. That would be a resource for mankind worthy ofthe name.

Google has used its “sterlingreputation” to argue that it can provide this and associated servicesfaster, cheaper, and better than public bodies can.

Vaidhyanathan disagrees,arguing that Google’s pre-eminence in the market has undermined what should begenuinely public responsibilities to provide public goods. This is not,Vaidhyanathan is careful to insist, to say that Google is evil—far from it; butit is also not the White Knight of popular imagination either. It is abusiness, seeking a profit, driven by the profit motive; it is not a publicservice institution. The perception of it as an altruistic and benevolentorganization was created by its users, not itself. The motto “Don’t beevil” has never been part of its public face, Vaidhyanathan says; it waswe the users who wished it to succeed because we applauded those aspects of itthat were genuinely applaudable—the commitment to openness, fraternity, littleor no control or censorship, open code, the democratic process of lots ofpeople building amazing facilities for the Web. Google opposed the worlddomination of Microsoft, which never pretended to be anything but a for-profitinstitution, opposing open-source and code-making anarchy. Google was the goodguy, and it succeeded: David contested Goliath, and became another Goliath bydoing so.

Google both spread andbenefitted from goodwill in this way. The company’s founders say that theybegan with principles and are not going to violate them. But, saysVaidhyanathan, the sheer scope of Google and its proliferation into many newareas has produced frictions and contradictions. He gives the example of therun on United Airlines stock that resulted from a trifling error, the absenceof metadata on a web page giving the date of a report. Someone saw on Google anold report that UA was seeking bankruptcy protection, and thought it was newinformation. An alert flashed out, holders of UA stock began selling it asquickly as possible, and the share price tanked. So did that of other airlines,because (typically for the stock markets) panic selling spread like aninfection before the mistake was detected. When Bloomberg issued a correctionthe stock prices rallied, but not before a lot of money was lost. Trust inGoogle, Vaidhyanathan says, prevented people from checking the facts before thedamage was done—and the example is illustrative of the potential for damage.

One of the mostinteresting points Vaidhyanathan makes concerns the levels of responsibilitythat Google bears for the content it offers us, from lowest to highest acrossthree types of function: scanning and linking, hosting and serving, andscanning and serving. To understand this, remember that there is content that noteveryone wishes to have accessed, such as pornography, copyright infringements,and privacy invasions. If Google keeps such content available beyond a certaintolerance limit, it opens itself to backlash or even prosecution.

Its lowest level ofresponsibility relates to content that other people create, which it simplycopies and posts for its own index. It neither solicits nor prohibits it,neither buys nor profits from it. It makes no editorial input, it just indexesit and makes it available. Google is not responsible for what other people puton the net.

The next level of Google’sresponsibility is for what it “hosts and serves.” Here Google makesother people’s content available on its facilities, obviously enoughbenefitting from the profiles it harvests and the advertising space it canaccordingly sell on its facilities.

In “scanning andserving” Google has the greatest responsibility. It digitizes things thatwere not hitherto digitized, and makes them available. Examples are GoogleMaps, Google Street View, and Google Books. Google here makes the decisionabout what is worthwhile to scan and serve. People can complain—for example,about what appears on Google’s street view service—but it can take weeks forcontent to be removed, and by then it will probably have been copied anddisseminated many times over. As Vaidhyanathan puts it, this involves a badassumption on Google’s part to the effect that everything is up for grabs andcan only be challenged and removed post facto. This wrongly sets the default atthe lowest possible standard.

This naturally leadsVaidhyanathan to ask whether there should be regulation. On this he isagnostic, pointing out that there is already some degree of regulation in theform of copyright laws, but that matters would be improved if we did not haveto trust that a company like Google will not abuse its position, but will allowusers to search in a fair and uncorrupted way. Now, Google does not (thoughmany think it does otherwise) take money to put links high in web searches.Search providers might one day not be so ethical. But in making editorial decisionsabout what is worthwhile, and in now claiming to prefer “high qualitysites” over “low quality sites” (are they always able to tellwhich is which?) they are taking sole responsibility for value decisions ofconsiderable moment.

A problem here is thatGoogle’s search algorithms are a commercial secret, so the chance of atransparent audit of how they make those decisions is slim. What standards doesGoogle use? If it only follows my previously manifested desires, it is notgoing to give me the information that would most be of use to me.

I am with Vaidhyanathan inwishing to see a Human Knowledge Project set up, a fifty-year goal to create aglobal digital library and information resource that every child anywhere inthe world can tap into. The technology exists, but not the political will, saysVaidhyanathan, even though the advantage of a non-profit humanitarian resourcehas so much going for it that it is surprising that such a project is notalready well under way.

Perhaps the lack ofpolitical will has something to do with how many governments do not want theirpeople to know too much or be able to find out too much. Here is a chicken andegg situation: do we have to wait for the world to be civilized enough for aHuman Knowledge Project to become feasible, or would it only become civilizedenough if such a Project existed? I suspect the latter: and therefore thinkthat all those who are interested should put their shoulders to the wheel andcreate it. That would be a true search for knowledge, and the most liberatingthing we could ever do.

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