New Network Theory – Siva Vaidhyanathan

On: June 28, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


New Network TheorySiva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System and currently associate professor at NYU, is here to talk about the Googlization of Everything.

Siva’s starting point is that Google is part of our lives, and we talk about in a way that resembles the way we would talk about the Divine. Ultimately, we say, “It is a force for good.” As per the Book of Sergey and Larry, “Don’t be evil”. And in Siva’s words, the path to heaven seems lined by small, personalized advertisements. In the world of Google, moral problems are merely unsolved technological ones. But Google – the search engine – is a black box, and perhaps this is why we mere mortals must become believers.

Google has divine aims, too. Universal access to all of the world’s information? Sergey says, “It would be like the Mind of God”.

Siva goes on to discuss the theology of the network via the theology of Google. His interests are broad, from the way the world looks through Google’s eyes, to the political and legal implications of the various precedents Google is (or will be) setting. The issues are multifarious – from the purchase of Double Click to the Viacom-Youtube lawsuit – and the of much speculation throughout the business, legal and politcal spheres.

All the while, Siva says, Google must keep its image – its halo – and so far it has.. Google demands loyalty. In return it offers the illusion of democracy, precision and objectivity.

But some kinks have been discovered: for instance there is Google bombing, famously making George Bush the top result for the search ‘miserable failure’. So the algorithm has to be tweaked – enter the search engine specialists, who act as editors of the editor-less engine.

Highly motivated bigots have ensured over the years that searches surrounding the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Holocaust’ have produced like-minded, ant-semetic results. The only way to challenge this is to appeal to the editors of the editor-less engine.

Another example is the way that Wikipedia entries, seemingly overnight, became top hits for just about any search term. This must have been an edit to Wikipedia’s trust ranking.

More kinks are found in Google Book search – it overprotects, for example, prohibiting access to books already in the public domain (e.g. Government). While many there are many enthusiasts for Book search, from Lessig to Doctorow, Siva doesn’t agree, and foresees a clash that will hurt the chances of a better approach to copyright. (The service is the subject of another current lawsuit against Google)

Why is Google’s game so dangerous? Siva explains that there are ‘two cultures’ of copyright, the analog and that of the Web. Offline, copyright is opt-out, meaning by default you must ask permission, whereas online copyright is opt-in. These cultures of copyright are clashing, for example, in the Viacom-Youtube case. A precedent by which Google is forced to ‘manually’ check for copyrighted material would radically change the Web, for the US and likely the rest of the world with it.
Why? Google, and every other search engine, has to copy to index. What would a Web look like if this founding right to copy is no longer a right at all?

Discussing the role of the consumer, Siva notes another Google illusion – that of the free service. We pay for Google with our data – our searching habits, our surfing habits – and this fuels Google’s cash cow, personalized advertising. Siva calls for a renewed approach to understanding this kind of consumer surveillance, one that pushes aside the tired model of the panopticon (which Foucault analyzed in Discipline and Punish). He cites some of the ways surveillance has changed: it is private rather than state-run, and we don’t know how much they know. Most of all, we’re encouraged to transgress – to enjoy! as Zizek would say – rather than forced to reform as in Bentham’s model. That is, on the Web we need to show our true selves.

Siva concludes his talk with a plea against technofundamentalism – the Google logic that you can always fix the problem by tweaking and innovating. This is also a plea against the myth of technological neutrality. Google is not neutral, he says, and politics are built into the black boxes of their search engines. Finally, this is a plea for Critical Information Studies – a nice start to the conference, then.

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