Review of Siva Vaidhyanathan. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry).
University of California Press
The literature on Google has exploded in the last few years. To the extend of my overview, much of it falls into two categories. The first treats Google as the paradigmatic Internet company, active across a large number of domains. Its tone is either celebratory – lauding innovation and creative destruction 1 – or alarmist focusing on privacy and surveillance issues. The latter is more popular in in continental Europe than in the English speaking world. 2 The advantage of this approach is its clear focus: a company. Yet, the resulting books tend to be fairly shallow, for two reasons. First, the speed of change that is currently being produced by Google make it very difficult to keep up, particularly in the relative slow medium of a book. Second, Google, like many high-tech companies, is extremely secretive about itself. For researchers, it presents a black box. The inner workings have to be inferred from the relationship between input and output. Given the complexity, flexibility and personalization of these inner workings, this is an exceedingly hard task. Of course, no black box is ever entirely black so these books tend to highlight what they perceive as extraordinary access to which they were privileged, but still, the box remains very dark in most places. The second set of books treats Google as a cultural principle: accessing unstructured databases as the dominant mode of navigating the (informational) world. 3 In general, this approach leads more measured analysis, mainly because the principle itself can be understood without proprietary knowledge and the rate of change from one mode of organizing information to another is less rapid. This makes it possible to develop a deeper historical understanding, bring to bear a more nuanced set of cultural theories, and focus on a more diverse set of players and factors. The downside of this approach is its less stringent focus. The organization of information is such a basal dimension of culture that its effects are ubiquitous and interact with a myriad of other dynamics. All this makes it impossible to pin down a single factor without becoming reductionist in the way media theory can sometimes be.
Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything sits somewhere in the middle, it’s firmly focused on Google, other search engines or tech companies only make cameo appearances, and treats it as general principle effecting society at large. This approach is a mixed blessing. One the one hand, it manages to combine focus (Google) with scope (Googlization), but it also encounters the problem of the black box and is frequently reductionist, by relating complex historical change to a single (f)actor, Google.
But first things first. For Vaidhyanathan Googlization means the Google way of doing things – simple interfaces yielding ranked results, offered for free as a way to deliver advertisement – is becoming increasingly the de facto standard in accessing information, marginalizing other approaches even if they might be superior in terms of quality. Thus Google is becoming a monopolist both in the business sense, ruling many markets without real competitors, as well as in the cultural sense, by unifying practices and expectations according along its own standards. Google rose to this position within less than a decade by “figur[ing] out how to manage abundance while every other media company in the world was trying to manufacture scarcity” (p.11). It did so by relying heavily on algorithms capable of keeping up with the exponential growth of the digital universe while offering extreme ease-of-use: type in a term or two and get a screen with a tidy list of 10 results. Since its beginning as a university project and then as a company promising not to be evil, Google has profited from what Vaidhyanathan calls “trust bias”. Since we assume that Google works well and works in our interests, we are usually happy with the first few results offered. All the more since these are usually good enough to satisfy our immediate, short term needs. Much of the book is devoted to examining the validity of the trust bias. And, he concludes, such extraordinary trust is less and less warranted. This for two sets of reasons. First, Google (the company) is changing its character. And, second, Googlization (the process) has aggregated effects that are socially problematic.
The main effects of the changes in the company, Vaidhyanathan concludes, is that “where once Google specialized in delivering information to satiate curiosity, it now does so to facilitate consumption…. Where once users were guided to the unfamiliar, now targeted and customized searches are the default, thus driving us to the familiar and comfortable” (pp.201-02). The existing problems of the page-rank algorithms – such as favoring popularity over quality – are compounded by the growing number of tweaks to those algorithms which are done in part to “improve quality” – something that is nearly impossible to assess, since we do not have a comparison – but also to accommodate political and commercial power. One example given in the book concerns the status of Arunachal Pradesh, a disputed territory lying between India and China. When searching from within India, Google Maps shows the territory as belonging to India. When searching from within in China, Google Maps shows it as part of China. Rather than showing the area as disputed, Google simply reproduces the government line to avoid friction in important markets. A more recent example of such tweaking is that Google lowers a site’s ranking based on the number of copyright complaints issued against it. This is clearly a move to placate media companies which are increasingly seen as partners for delivering packaged content to consumers. In the assessment of the changes in Google as a company Vaidhyanathan is on solid ground, making most out of the focus that following the first perspective offers. While the argument might not be overly surprising for those who follow these issues closely and critically, it’s a very important argument to make, since most people still see Google primarily as an unbiased search engine whose search results are largely unaffected by the commercial orientation of the company. And Vaidhyanathan is capable of making it in terms that resonate with larger audiences.
Given the strict commercial orientation of the company – and the tension this generates with its mission to organize the world’s information – Vaidhyanathan’s warnings about surrendering too much power to the new media monopoly is also very convincing. He is particularly critical of Google’s attempts to take over functions that used to be provided by public, or at least public-minded, institutions such as universities. In the Google Book project he, rightly in my view, sees an attempt to create a monopoly in the provision of digital books, turning libraries into mere access interfaces and printing stations for a proprietary back-end. This would not only create significant dependencies, but it would also destroy much of the specialized knowledge created by libraries over the course of their existence, since scanning and meta-data quality is much worse in Google than in the library’s own efforts. But, of course, libraries cannot match Google’s scale nor its cavalier treatment of copyright. The project has stalled at the moment, but the ambition has not.
However, here the focus in Google starts to become limiting. Vaidhyanathan offers very little as to why Google is able to invade these domains, except noting “public failure”, that is, public institutions and regulation not only failing to offer alternatives, but even directly supporting this transformation. Here the analysis would have benefited from more comprehensive perspective on privatization and Silicon Valley’s own contribution to the libertarian “Zeitgeist” that views public institutions as antiquated (see, for example, Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish). This would have implicated Google (and the Silicon Valley culture it represents) in much more troublesome ways than simply “capitalizing on a thirty year tradition of public failure” (p.40).
Even more limiting is the focus on Google in the second set of issues raised in this book. That is the aggregated effects of the Google’s quest to deliver personalized information. Here the argument resonates with Eli Pariser’s concerns about the filter bubble. Rather than helping to create a new, global public sphere, Google, through personalization, is fragmenting the cultural landscape, locking everyone into his or her own parochial, localized personal niche. Thus, Google is a force in creating what he calls “local culture movements”, or specialized cultural niches. This can heighten rather than diffuse social tensions, because “it fractures a sense of common knowledge or common priorities rather than enhances it” (p.139). A fracturing of the cultural landscape, a narrowing of the “main stream” and an expansion of cultural diversity can certainly be observed in certain areas. But in relating this primarily to Google, Vaidhyanathan commits the “sin” that he accuses Google of: techno-fundamentalism. That is, the belief that technology drives history. In its optimistic version, the right kind of technology will drive history in the right direction, in the negative version, it drives it in the wrong direction. In both, it’s all powerful, sidelining other actors and modes of acting. Now, Vaidhyanathan is very careful, again rightly in my view, not to turn Google into a force for of evil, but the exclusive focus on a technology company when discussing complex social transformations invariably veers towards techno-fundamentalism, just that technology is not good or evil, but ambiguous, driving society into multiple directions at once.
In a way, techno-fundamentalism is the avoidance of politics by translating social problems into technical solutions. Vaidhyanathan does his own avoidance of politics, but by translating social issues into moral ones. He repeatedly frames Google’s actions as “sins” and speaks of its “hubris”. But since he tries to avoid being too reductionist, Google’s sins are also our sins, since we are so willing to take up its offers and follow its flawed techno-fundamentalist vision. Here, a more cultural, political or economic analysis is sorely missing. Consequently, his solution, offered at the end of the book, is a non-starter. A Human Knowledge Project, where public-minded people and institutions come together in open deliberation to create an alternative that’s in the public interest. Habermas 2.0, one could say. While this did not work when Europe tried to develop an altnerative to Google called quero, there is no indication that this would work in the US context better. However, there are, in my view, alternatives to Googlization, but order to be able to think about them, we would need talk about economics (how can we provision services that are not based on advertisement and hence of profilin? For example through a commons-based approach) or architecture (how can we build and infrastructure that is less centralized? For example, through a distributed elements in the back-end infrastructure.) For such debates, the book offers very little.Perhaps that’s an unfair charge, since it’s not necessarily the book’s intention to do so. All in all, Vaidhyanathan’s book is still important, because since it transports a number of critical perspectives into mainstream discourse and it does so in a language that is acceptable to the mainstream.
Auletta, Ken. Googled. The End of the World as We Know It. London: Random House, 2010
Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder, eds., Deep Search: The Politics of Search beyond Google. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009.
Borsook, Paulina . Cyberselfish A Critical Romp Through The Terribly Libertarian Culture Of High Tech. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001
Ippolita Collective. The Dark Side of Google. URL: http://ippolita.net/google, 2009
Jarvis, Jeff. What Would Google Do? New York: Harper Collins, 2009
Levy, Stephen. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin Press, 2011
Reischl, Gerald. Die Google-Falle. Die unkontrollierte Weltmacht im Internet. Berlin: Überreuter, 2008
Röhle, Theo. Der Google-Komplex: Über Macht im Zeitalter des Internets. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010
Vise, David A. The Google Story. New York: McMillan Publisher, 2005
- Auletta, Ken. Googled. The End of the World as We Know It. London: Random House, 2010; Levy, Stephen. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011; Jarvis, Jeff. What Would Google Do? New York: Harper Collins, 2009; Vise, David A. The Google Story. New York: McMillan Publisher, 2005 ↩
- Reischl, Gerald. Die Google-Falle. Die unkontrollierte Weltmacht im Internet. Berlin: Überreuter, 2008; Ippolita Collective. The Dark Side of Google. URL: http://ippolita.net/google, 2009 ↩
- Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder, eds., Deep Search: The Politics of Search beyond Google. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009; Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin Press, 2011; Röhle, Theo. Der Google-Komplex: Über Macht im Zeitalter des Internets. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. ↩