There have been a few popular books in recent years detailing Google's ascent in the digital world, notably Ken Auletta's Googled: The End of the World as We Know It and Jeff Jarvis's What Would Google Do. But there is another story, says author and media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan.
In his new book, The Googlization of Everything: And Why We Should Worry (Univ. of California Press) Vaidhyanathan explores the young company's increasingly dominant role not just online but in our lives. "What is most fascinating about Google to me is its effect on us," the author tells PW. "Its effect on the media business is interesting, but I wanted to write a book that could inform a casual Google user about some of the hazards and habits of Google. In that sense, my book is much more about us than it is about Google. In fact, the critical faults of the story I tell are ours, because we've become so addicted to getting more stuff, faster, for free."
Google is a ubiquitous presence in our lives. We search the Web on Google, watch videos on YouTube, write with Google Docs, e-mail with Gmail. There's Google Maps, Google Scholar, Images, Blogger, Street View; there's Google TV, plans for Google Music, and a translation product still developing. There's a Google reference service that texts results to your smartphone, and, yeah, there's a Google smartphone. There's a Google browser, Chrome, and of course there is Google Book Search and the newly launched Google eBooks store. Wherever you are, it seems, there Google is. According to last week's New York Times, Google is now even investing in low-income housing.
Indeed, we are awed by and increasingly dependent on the brilliant, free tools Google rolls out for us. But as Vaidhyanathan warns, while free, Google is not without a cost. As much as we use Google, Google uses us. And for all we don't know about the company, the company sure knows a lot about us, collecting and parsing information about our habits with every click.
"What really put me over the edge is when I read a quote from [Google cofounder] Sergey Brin, who was asked in an interview what would the perfect search engine be?" Vaidhyanathan tells PW over coffee at New York's Morgan Library. "He responded: ‘it would be like the mind of God.' I thought, any company with a leader who thinks like that has to have a deeper book, and we really have to look at the nature of our relationship with Google."
Unlike some of Google's harsher critics, Vaidhyanathan doesn't think the company is evil, and he doesn't see a conspiracy to rule the world. But the speed with which the company has come to dominate our information world should give us pause, he argues. And before we cede institutions and ways of doing things that have been in place for decades—even centuries—to a nascent company that often works in secrecy, we should ask ourselves what we are getting—and what we are giving up.
Perhaps nowhere is that more in evidence than in the way the controversial Google Book Settlement came down. Now almost a year since its February 18, 2009, fairness hearing, the settlement still awaits approval, and however it goes, Vaidhyanathan says, the process has shown us what is at stake in the rapidly "Googlizing" future.
PW caught up with Vaidhyanathan to talk about Google, and what the still unapproved Google Book Settlement can teach us about the ways and means of a company that has become a cornerstone of modern life in less than a decade.
In the introduction you write that Google increasingly determines what is important and relevant to us. Can you explain what you mean by that?
The assumption for years has been that Google merely aggregates our decisions, perceptions, and our judgments. But it's not that simple. Google is not without its biases, and I wanted to try to unpack the nature of some of its biases, which, not surprisingly, skew toward what's new, popular, and tech-savvy. The major realization I had in doing this book is that Google now governs the Web, and more because of the choices it makes than the choices we make. Think back to when Google first started. There were a handful of search engines, and if you went to any of them and typed in common words like "Asian" or "facial," you'd get porn sites. It was Google that figured out how to make our Web experience better by filtering—not by censoring or blocking access to porn sites. But while Google is officially content-neutral, de facto it's not, because it filters. For example, it favors certain aspects of page design. That's a good thing, of course. It has made the Web better. But it is also important that we acknowledge what Google does, and that Google now pretty much runs the Web, albeit with our tacit, implicit consent.
|In The Googlization of Everything, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of highly acclaimed books on digital copyright and peer-to-peer networks, takes a critical look at the implications of a Google-dominated information world. The following are some of his observations. |
The speed with which Google has come to rule the information world is stunning. How did Google go from launching a search engine to dominating the Web in less than a decade?
Google recognized early on how the Web fundamentally works—that's the brilliant story. It did not want to be a content-based site, or sell things, or simply digitize the practices of the analogue world. It ranked and linked content. Later, it recognized that people get great satisfaction from expressing themselves and interacting online, and it got into the business of hosting content through things like YouTube and Blogger. Then it began creating content through things like Street View and Book Search. Each of these steps was significant and done with the overarching belief that Google should not be a top-down media company. That's why it never went out and bought properties like the New York Times. YouTube made sense for Google because that's where users express themselves. Why would it buy the New York Times? It already had the New York Times.