19th Oct2012

Book Review: The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)

by averydame

Google’s omnipresence has become something of a cultural meme, as it seeks to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google 2012). Even Google has mocked of its own pervasiveness, with its 2009 April Fools prank, the “Brain Search” google mobile app, which promised to “index your brain” (GoogleMobileBlog 2009). But this shaping of perception and memory is exactly what is happening to the average Google user, according to Siva Vaidhyanathan. In The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) Vaidhyanathan seeks to “generate a fuller picture of what is at stake in this apparently costless transaction [between Google and its users] and a new model of surveillance that goes beyond the now trite Panopticon model” (9). Each chapter is themed around a particular function og Google, beginning with an introductory anecdote that frames the function in practice before moving into its specifics.

Early on in the book he establishes that his focus is on being accessible to both popular and academic audiences. While this does not affect the strength of his argument, Vaidhyanathan’s tone is more conversational, and the depth of detail he goes to is rather more shallow than one might expect from an academic text. However, this choice is reflective of his larger argument: there is distinct value in shining a light into the black box that is Google, demystifying its interior functions, motivations, and pervasiveness for its consumers, who span from academics to the interested reader who communicates only through GMail.

Vaidhyanathan begins by tracking Google’s rise from a project by two computer science Ph.D.s at Stanford to a $9.7 billion dollar corporation. He presents Google as a kind of Caesar who orders the disorganized and undisciplined Rome of the Internet through its search function. Google was set apart from its competitors by the sheer amount of data it seeks to consume in pursuit of better search. Google’s continued predominance merely increases its power, making it “better because it’s bigger, and bigger because it’s better” (20). Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan sees Google’s rise as a result of a larger “public failure” by the state to provide services to the general public–the inverse of market failure (40-41). And Google discourages the impulse for government regulation through liberal reference to its “motto,” “Don’t be evil,” a rhetorical trick that emphasizes faith over skepticism.

This faith is reflective of Chapter 2’s focus, the philosophy that has facilitated Google’s rise: techno-fundamentalism, wherein all problems can be solved by technology, even problems solved by other technology (55). Techno-fundamentalism,  Vaidhyanathan argues, hides the role of human bias and majority opinion in ordering how Google presents information to its users. In order to pull back the curtain, so to speak, he focuses on the functions of Google Search. The search list is representative of precise comprehensiveness, which “appears to be clear and ranked in order of relevance” and encouraged user trust (59). However, this precise comprehensiveness elides the role of the human in the ordering of search, an example of this being searching for “Jew.” Ultimately, Google search results represent a comfortable middle ground (60) often influenced by internet “elites” who determine the relevance of sites.

Chapter 3 considers the role of the user in Google’s ecosystem, specifically regarding privacy, surveillance, and the role of infrastructure. Choice, in Google’s system, is an illusion: though Google provides an array of options for users to control their privacy, few users understand these switches, making them irrelevant (89). Instead, most users use the default settings, which many not actually best protect their privacy. Instead of merely being about the information we share, Vaidhyanathan argues privacy should “[refer] to the terms of control over information, not the nature of the information we share” (93). Vaidhyanathan considers these issues by looking at user concerns outside the United States, particularly in Japan and the United Kingdom, around the Street View project. Google’s inclination to assuming universal surveillance as a default is itself an expression of ideology, reflective of a larger “infrastructural imperialism” (110-111). He proposes a “cryptopticon,” “we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled–we simply know we are” (112).

Infrastructural imperialism then raises the question of just what Google’s role is in the global public sphere. In Chapter 4, Vaidhyanathan spends a large section of the chapter challenging public perceptions of both China’s Great Firewall and Google’s own position as a vanguard for the cause of free speech. As he points out, having access to a variety of information does not automatically promote change. Web search is “inherently conservative” by limiting “the number of surprises users will encounter.” Such search “inhibits rather than promotes social and political change” (133) by increasing users’ inclinations of tribalization.

The final two chapters focus primarily on Google’s attempts to fill in the gaps left by public failure: Google Books and Google’s increasing presence in higher education. Google Books, begun with the intent of making knowledge more accessible, instead increases Google’s overall power by exploiting weaknesses in copyright law. Google places faith in the power of search and the accuracy of metadata, but fails to replicate the knowledge and precise curatorial, filtering power of the librarian. Google seeks to fill a similar filtering role, but it cannot make distinctions regarding the value of the information it provides as “true or false, dependable or sketchy, polemical or analytical” (191). Thus function, according to Vaidhyanathan, is best left to professors and librarians, who can train students to understand these distinctions.

Vaidhyanathan closes the book by proposing a “Human Knowledge Project” modeled on the Human Genome Project, staffed by individuals trained in library and information science. This project would involves firms such as Google, but would not serve any one company’s financial interests. Instead, the focus would be placed on making knowledge available for the good of all. Though I am skeptical of his final exhortation, I think this work is particularly important because it does much to peel back Google’s layers and reach beyond the surface to bring forth Google’s hidden functions. For scholars who study communities with strong internet presences, particularly those where members communicate primarily online, this book is especially useful. It provides the groundwork for studies considering just how Google shapes community members’ perceptions and knowledges.

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