Book Review: The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) by Siva Vaidhyanathan
I’m a so-called Google poweruser. Not only do I use the world’s biggest search engine for my daily queries like millions of ‘normal’ mortals do, I also use Google for my pictures (Picasa), my agenda (Google Agenda), video’s (YouTube), documents (Google Docs) and, most importantly: my e-mail (Gmail). So when a book comes along entitled: The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) I’m interested. And apparently, I should worry.
The book is written by Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia. He has been active in the field for quite some time, wrote several books and appears regularly in the mainstream media to speak about new media. (Like this appearance in The Daily Show on social media). He seems to know what he’s talking about.
It took him almost five years to produce this book. Which is remarkable, because the book is only about 210 pages long (not including the Acknowledgments and a very detailed list of notes). It’s not only short, it’s also very readable, obviously written for the general public. Professor Vaidhyanathan has a pleasant style of writing: there’s humor, a few personal notes and some decent storytelling within this ‘manifest’.
According to the Acknowledgements the writing of this book took so long because he wanted to study his object thoroughly, living la vida Google (p. 211), immersing himself into the world of Google: intensively using their products, talk to their employees and visit Mountain View, the famous headquarters of Google Inc.. But, as one can guess from the title, he doesn’t end up as a big fan. Instead, he’s worried. And he tries to show us why we should be too.
The book has a simple structure: The Googlization (of everything) is for Vaidhyanathan a major concern on many levels, and he shares a few of those in several chapters. Beginning with the Googlization of Us.
Vaidhyanathan starts this with the story of how Google became the ruler of the Web. That first chapter is called Render unto Caesar (one of several religious references in the book) in which he compares the rise of Google with the rise of that ancient Roman dictator. Like Caesar seizing control over a chaotic Roman Republic, Google created order in the chaos that was the Word Wide Web. Google made the Web safer, “ensuring that most users have a comfortable experience most of the time” (p. 15). Caesar had his Legio XIII Gemina and Google has PageRank: a revolutionary system that rewards sites getting the most hyperlinks with a place on top of the search results. And now it’s the biggest internet company in the world.
On the user level, he is first of all worried about privacy. Calling Google Streetview “the most pervasive example of the Googlization of us” (p. 101). But he also fears that Google is becoming “the chief lens trough which we see the world” (p. 72). If Google is the main source, what picture of reality does it give us? It is “sometimes harmful when people [..] trust a simple Google search as the first step towards the truth” (p. 78) because the results have already been filtered by your preferences, location and previous searches. You never know what Google doesn’t show you.
On one of the opening pages of the book Vaidhyanathan quotes a 19th century French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, to summarize his critique on this 21th century enterprise:
It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to ones acting; it does not destroy , it prevents things from coming into being; it does not tyrannize, it hinders.
In the next part Vaidhyanathan gives an intriguing insight in The Googlization of the World. In a short chapter but with a very broad perspective he sketches the circumstances under which Google operates in the rest of the world, and focuses on their struggles with China. I found this chapter to be particularly interesting. Vaidhyanathan turns out to be a great storyteller incorporating revolutions, technologies and even Habermas into his story.
But it seems like the last part of the book is most important to him. In the chapters The Googlization of Knowledge and The Googlization of Memory Vaidhyanathan addresses Google’s mass digitalization of books ( Google Books), and Google’s rising influence in higher education. Trusting Google with such important material, like our intellectual heritage, is a definitely a bridge too far for him. Google is now overplaying its hand.
Trust, or lack thereof, seems to be the main issue in the book. In his conclusion he recapitulates: “the problem with the Googlization of everything is that we count on Google too much. We trust it too much. We have blind faith in its ability to solve grand problems with invisible technologies.” (p. 210). Vaidhyanathan argues that we should never forget Google is a commercial company, and in the end it’s only accountable to its stakeholders. “We are not Google’s customers, we are its product. We – our fancies, fetishes, predilections, and preferences – are what Google sells to advertises” (p. 3). And because Google is a company, who can predict what they’ll do in ten years? Or what Google looks like in thirty years? If it still exists.
That’s why “we must build systems that can serve us better, regardless of which companies and technologies thrive in the next decade” (p. 210). That’s why he invites us to participate in the Human Knowledge Project: “a project to design an information ecosystem that would outlive Google” (p. 204). It should be “open, public, global, multilingual, and focused” (p. 205), organizing the world’s information and make it universally accessible. Free of commercialization, data-mining of advertisement-driven platforms like Google (p. 206). That sounds a lot like Wikipedia, but according to Vaidhyanathan Wikipedia is “amateur-driven and thus unstable” (p. 205-206). This enormous undertaking requires the collaboration of thousands and a change in politics. It might take years, but to Vaidhyanathan it’s worth the effort.
Am I convinced? Well, maybe. I’m not deleting my Google account yet. But I do see the urgent logic in his closing arguments. The book didn’t make me worry, but it sure made me think about Google, and it’s major role in our society and our digital lives. Because of the firm positionVaidhyanathan takes you’ll be stimulated into forming your own opinion, and that’s what makes this book worth your time.