Yann Moulier Boutang @ The Society of The Query asking, “Are we all just Google’s worker bees?”

On: November 14, 2009
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About Chris Castiglione
Chris is an alumni of Universiteit van Amsterdam and the New Media M.A. Currently, he is the co-founder of One Month (www.onemonth.com), and the host of the On Books (www.on-books.com) podcast.

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Society of the Query

Are we all just worker bees being exploited by Google for capitalistic means?

Google has become the emblem of cognitive capitalism because it has invented a new economic model relying on the controlled development of collective intelligence networks. French socio-economist Yann Moulier Boutang explored the dependency of Google (as a factory for the commodization of knowledge) on human querying (as labor).

“You are working for Google! Every second, 15 million people are clicking and feeding data to Google – a true paradigm of people working for the firm,” explains Boutang. What Google is selling is not an ordinary service, but a meta-service, one that depends on human contribution. He likens this human activity to that of the worker bee, and the economy of Google is dependent on the pollination of these bees. Boutang further illustrates the analogy by looking at the habits of beekeepers, “Beekeepers in the U.S. are no longer making their living by selling wax or honey. They are selling the bee’s activity: they rent their service of pollination.”

Society of the Query
Boutang surmises that Google’s new economic model may be reshaping capitalism into – what he refers to as – a “meta-market”. In this type of market knowledge is recognized as a public, non-rival good that can be easily transferred through the network. The marketable asset here goes beyond cognitive capitalism (where the pure input/output of an immaterial asset is commodified) by establishing a new market based on the meta-data culled form “human pollination”.

In conclusion Boutang asks, “Is it possible to free the clickworker from Google?” Boutang seems uncertain, but ultimately he believes that “an imitation Google”, an open-source or publicly owned knowledge engine, would be the last hope for freeing the bees from the beekeeper.

One Response to “Yann Moulier Boutang @ The Society of The Query asking, “Are we all just Google’s worker bees?””
  • November 16, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    I never thought I’d find myself being an apologist for Google. Indeed, Google, like any large monopolistic corporation demands careful scrutiny, if not intervention. But Boutang’s talk made me think more about the tremendous significance of what Google enables, rather than its allegedly parasitic business model, generating profit on the unpaid labor of unwitting users, much like beekeepers generate profit on the unpaid labor of bees.

    Clearly, the rhetoric of Boutang’s example cannot help but make us feel used, to make us feel like worker bees, a metaphor that obviously must repulse members of the creative economy. But it’s not an accurate metaphor. For in the economy of ideas, both individuals and Google contribute to the pollination process. To think of Google as a beekeeper is to misunderstand the vital function it plays as a pollinator of ideas.

    Boutang noted that bees do a wonderful job of pollinating nature in general but did not hazard a guess at what the economic value of that might be. One might suppose it is extraordinarily large, if not infinite, for without it, the ecology of the Earth as we know it might cease to exist. While undoubtedly Google benefits from work/play of unpaid Internet users, it also contributes to the broadest pollination of ideas ever witnessed in human history. Indeed, without Google or viable alternatives, content on the Internet – particularly non-commercial content – would be difficult, if not impossible, to access, and therefore would not be able to compete with commercial or state-issued content, or even participate in, the online bazaar of ideas. Google not only reaps the benefits of a certain pollination process, but it makes a much larger pollination process possible, providing a vital infrastructural component that fuels creative exchange and invention. Even if Google becomes ridiculously rich, the riches it enables are incalculably large and arguably exponentially larger.

    That is perhaps the most important reason why Google’s corporate conduct must be carefully monitored, if not subjected to national or international regulation. To Google’s credit, it has been a strong supporter of net neutrality. But what about search neutrality? This issue recently was addressed by Nate Anderson on Ars Technica, with respect to the work of economist Andrew Odlyzko, who anticipates that in the future Google may be subject to legislation enforcing search neutrality.

    “The basic conclusion is that for pervasive infrastructure services that are crucial for the functioning of society, rules about allowable degrees of discrimination have traditionally applied, and are likely to be demanded for the Internet in the future. Those rules have often been set by governments, and are likely to be set by them in the future as well. For telecommunications, given current trends in demand and in rate and sources of innovation, it appears to be better for society not to tilt towards the operators, and instead to stimulate innovation on the network by others by enforcing net neutrality. But this would likely open the way for other players, such as Google, that emerge from that open and competitive arena as big winners, to become choke points. So it would be wise to prepare to monitor what happens, and be ready to intervene by imposing neutrality rules on them when necessary.”(1)

    I disagree with Odlyzko’s assertion that we should prepare to monitor what happens. In accord with the general aims of the Society of the Query conference, I believe we must vigilantly monitor and interrogate Google now, doing what we can to create public awareness of a potentially onerous situation and to prepare for a future in which the Google “dictatorship” is not as benevolent or “funny” (to use Alessandro Ludovico’s terms) as it has been in the past. Google’s legal team must be preparing for the future, anticipating antitrust legislation. Similarly, we must be prepared to fight to ensure that Google does not abuse its monopolistic position by unfairly squelching competition, that it provides search results that are neutral, and that it does not violate users’ privacy. What might a “Magna Carta for Search Neutrality” (that is not infused with Californian Ideology consist of?

    (1) See http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/10/after-net-neutrality-will-we-need-google-neutrality.ars. Odlyzko’s article is here: http://www.rnejournal.com/artman2/uploads/1/odlyzko_RNE_mar09.pdf

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