Friday, December 2, 2011

Book review: The Googlization of Everything: and Why we Should Worry

Google's mission is to organize the worlds information.  This mission, while both brave and admirable has little to do with ensuring that information found on the Internet is accessible, or that content is truthful, accurate, timely, unbiased and free of commercialization.  We live in a world where most everything can have an established value. This means information can and certainly is made into a commodity. 

Information is bought, sold, manipulated and kept secret or shared for the benefit of those who control or have access to the content files, sounds, images and data. Business people, students, farmers, cooks, doctors, really all of us are involved in seeking, conveying or combining data in small and big ways throughout our day.

Contrary to the market driven formula concerning the access and control of information, publically funded libraries tend to have a mission which for thousands of years has supported the public good. This "good" is defined here as promoting democratic access to information by both equalizing and eliminating the gap between the information rich and poor.

Siva Vaidhyanathan's new book looks at the impact Google has had on information sharing, reproduction and access.  He focuses on the meteoric rise of Google, which started as a search tool and expanded into a diverse information services company. A global corporation which can make or break markets, impact how we get our information, what we can access, and how this access forms our perceptions, ability to communicate and enhances or subtracts from our personal and cultural memory and language.

The author notes, "we have invited Google to fill a vacuum....we allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, true on the web...we trust that Google acts in our best interest....but we have (outsourced) our control over the values, methods and processes that govern our information ecosystem.". The author is right that with much power comes deep responsibility. However, Google, like any corporation ultimately works to benefit itself and its shareholders. This does not make Google nefarious or bad, it just means that the company, while used so freely and openly world-wide, is an entity under which it operates to gain market share and profit over rivals.

When we use Google's services the company is also collecting information about our information behavior, our personal drives and desires. By looking at its diverse online offerings and services; from gmail and blogger to Google docs and Google scholar, or the strategic purchase of YouTube, to dozens of other offerings, one becomes conscious of just how diverse the company has become and how much we've come to rely in it to support the life we live on the Internet. These offerings and their personalization of experience mean that you are known and are being watched. This isn't meant to scare but just to remind the reader that nothing in life or on the web is truly free.

In terms of privacy, Google has access to all your online habits and information seeking behavior because of its default settings. These settings grant it the right to access and collect information. It also affords the company the right to hold and set a liberal maximum retention rate on the data it collects. This is all done to build and improve your search experience and promote new or expanded internet services. These innovations then lead to the collection of even greater amounts of data about individual and community use of the Internet.

As a surveillance tool, we have allowed the company access into our homes, work and into our deepest thoughts. In fact, one could argue that we have eagerly given up much of our privacy just to use Google's services. Thus providing Google access and liberal use of information that in some ways could be detrimental, but in other ways help us connect, grow and learn from each other and about the world.

The author notes that Google is a highly regulated company. That numerous laws in the United States and abroad manage the company's growth, performance and services. Plus, there are  numerous watch-dog groups which monitor the company, attempting to ensure that it does not become Big Brother. 

Vaidhyanathan also points out that ultimately Google exists in greater or lesser extent in three distinct areas of sevice via the internet. The first is what he calls, scan and link which basically is the web search front-end of the Chrome browser or URL; the second is host and serve, this being Blogger and YouTube, and the third service is, scan and serve and includes Google books and Google street. Because of the companys reach, the author notes, "faith in Google is dangerous not because of anything sinister that Google does. It's dangerous because of how we allow it to affect our expectations and information about the world."

Google is a complex organization run by smart people and they are not especially bad or all good, like all companies and institutions.  For instance, the author notes that while the companys public motto is to "do no evil" in actuality, Google in China has supported levels of censorship. Indeed, Google can make or break online markets just by changing how it calculates and presents search results and site rankings.  It can also support or block access by changing its advertising costs depending on a business relationship.

Knowledge is more than power, it is and instrument in which the powerful use it to consolidate more resources. Google's initiative to digitize the worlds printed books was met with positive and negative anticipation. The project intended to make Google the market leader for search and access to the electronic book market. However, the process and pace of the digitization as well as issues regarding copyright and payment for content remain troubling. Google works fast and efficiently, but doesn't necessarily put as much effort into indexing like librarians offer when they catalog a book or object. The idea to capture a market rather than truly make information democratic and accessible remains one of the projects main failures and a deep concern many have regarding the Google book initiative.

It should be noted that I, like many others, use gmail for personal and work communication. This blog was founded on and continues to use the Google platform.  So it must be understood that we cannot escape, nor possibly should we avoid Google or its products, services and search capabilities.  But I am a huge believer of democracy and choice, so I want to acknowledge that reliance on one product to meet all of ones information needs is dangerous and counter-intuitive to personal and societal freedom.

If you plan to read any books about Goolge or our information age, then Vaidyanathan's book is a very good place to start.  You'll probably wind up dong a Google search at some point in your day about some subject or person. If you do, you are certainly not alone and because of this fact, we are all connected to each other and the company.


  1. I've often had similar thoughts when realizing how much I, and we as a society, rely on Google services as well as other social & resource sites. For instance I recently found that online dictionaries are charging for access to knowledge of the English language & its origins of phrases, which I believe is wrong. Our language is difficult to learn & understand from an outside perspective as well as for we Native speakers; to facilitate learning, this information should be freely available online! Wasn't that one of the original goals of the internet, to enable learning & sharing of such information?
    About a month ago I created a photo album on my google profile for sharing with women, of sexy & nearly nude men. Well, my Google was shut down immediately, all access to every google service from my email, blog, photo albums, G+, even youtube & elsewhere, were blocked to me totally! How frustrating considering I had just had business cards & such purchased with my Google email & web site! worse, I read their terms of service & nowhere does it mention any issue with such images, and in fact says it does NOT censor such things, yet in action Google DOES censor! Apparently one person complained & this started the Google gestapo into shutting down my account without even having a human view the complaint or the so-called offending message! 12 hours later my access was given back, with a form letter apology from Google, BUT to this day I am blocked from making comments on any one's photos, including all the professional and amateur photographers who I network with on G+! Yet the complaint had nothing to do with a comment on a photo so this seems very arbitrary & ambiguous. Also the supposed offending photos were NOT deleted but the entire album was blocked from being viewed then & since.
    So I'm well aware NOW, of the unreliable nature of depending on a corporation of this size, reach & influence, for business, or networking, access to research & other resources, as well as risks taken everyday in sharing ANY content that could at ANY time result in ALL GOOGLE services being blocked for ANY reason at any time. How can I trust them not to censor what info I am able to receive or to share, when this is their business policy already?
    Over time I am hoping to move all my services OFF their network, since using any so-called free service like this is an unreliable way to do business, learning the hard way & early on, just adopted G+ a few months ago, so am not as entrenched after my experience as I could have been had I remained naive about the reach of such a company.
    Thanks for your excellent eye opening article, I've shared this out to other networks & to those on G+ as well, who may be as ignorant or naive as I was until this happened.