«  Great little video explains Google Docs Main "Society of the Query?": Geert Lovink on some of the problems we face in the merely searchable Web 2.0  »


In less than 10 years since the search engine first appeared and spread through word of mouth, Google.com has radically altered the rules of the game for at least six major industries: Advertising, software applications, geographic services, e-mail, publishing, and Web commerce itself. The company did this through a remarkable confluence of intellectual hubris and technical prowess.

But now, as we face the impending Googlization of everything, we should ask some hard questions about how Google is not only “creatively destroying” established players in various markets, but is also altering the very ways we see our world and ourselves.

If Google becomes the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it will have remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases are built into its algorithms. It knows more about us every day. We know almost nothing about it.

The company itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical questions in its way: they are engineers. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system yet to be fixed or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or flat plane of glass. It is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And more importantly, as a publicly traded company, must act in its own short-term interest despite its altruistic proclamations.

Google has utterly infiltrated our culture. It is a ubiquitous brand, used as a noun and a verb everywhere from adolescent conversations to scripts for Sex and the City. Its stock price soared in value after its initial offering in 2004, although it has eroded by nearly 30 percent from its peak in the early months of 2006. Its revenue has more than doubled to $3 billion per year since the offering. Since the initial public offering Google has aggressively acquired other firms like the video-hosting site YouTube and the Internet advertising company DoubleClick. The core service of Google.com – its Web search engine – handles more than 50 percent of the Web search business in the United States and is growing at an impressive rate.

To preserve its status as the elite, venerated, and fast-moving technology company of the future, Google must do two things. It must continue to convince the world that it is the anti-Microsoft. And it must find more things to index and expose to the world.

Clearly, Google has to protect its brand by being seen as the good guy. And so far it has. The damage Google has done to the world is largely invisible. Google got big by keeping ads small. It carefully avoided pinching our marketing-saturated nervous systems and offered illusions of objectivity, precision, comprehensiveness, and democracy. After all, we are led to believe, Google search results are determined by peer-review, by us, not by an editorial team of geeks. So far, this method has worked wonderfully. Google is the hero of word-of-mouth marketing lore. Google guides me through the open Web, the space that Microsoft does not yet control. Yet Google must get bigger to satisfy its new stockholders. It must go new places and send its spiders crawling through un-indexed corners of human knowledge. Google’s mission statement includes the rather optimistic and humanistic phrase, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But Google co-founder Sergey Brin once offered a more ominous description of what Google might become: “The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God.”

Criticisms and concerns notwithstanding, Google is a terribly impressive company. It is perhaps the best company for which to work in the entire world. Its employees get ample rewards, intellectual freedom, and daily perks like free massages. It has reached remarkable heights of wealth and income without polluting a river or crushing a child’s arm in a machine. It does not cause cancer or bullet wounds. And its products are generally lauded, and more importantly, used, by both technology experts and the general public. This has led to a general perception that Google can do no wrong as well as no evil. The only loud critics of Google so far have been representatives of industries that Google is shaking up and frustrated human rights and privacy advocates. But that list is growing as the list of criticisms of Google mounts.

This leads to an important question about the company’s future and our future with it: As Google engulfs more essential features of our daily lives, can it remain angelic and independent?

This book will examine the quality and scope of the various ventures and experiments that Google has launched in the past five years and the effects this growth has had on particular communities of knowledge producers.

I am asking four key questions in my examination of Google:

• The phenomenological: How does using Google alter our perceptions of the world? Are its search results accurate and appropriate? How is Google changing its search functions through human intervention? Are Google’s search algorithms inherently conservative, i.e. do they favor the establish and thus limit the dynamism of the Web? How will Google affect what we know?

• The cultural and communal: How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of cultural practice and knowledge? How will Google affect what we make?

• The political: how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? Will advertising ever be the same? Has Google exposed many of the core tenets of advertising to be unfounded? Will Google kill the Superbowl ad? How will Google affect the ways that governments and organizations and corporations work?

• The global: how can Google’s technocratic libertarian ideology mesh with the conflicting notions of knowledge and propriety in distant far from Mountainview, California? Will Google’s relationship with the brutal government of the People’s Republic of China be its undoing? Will China change Google more than Google changes China? How will Google change the world?

The case study that best demonstrates how Google is rewriting the rules is its Book Search project. Since 2004 Google has been scanning and indexing millions of books from more than 20 university libraries. This program has generated two high-profile lawsuits from publishers and authors' groups. In addition, it has initiated many conversations and debates about the future of print, research, reading, and learning. Google Book Search is significant because it is the first large-scale and comprehensive effort to offer a text-search function for books. Much like the commonly used Google Web search service, Google Book Search would locate the specific string of text that the user placed in a text search box on the Google page. Google Book Search generates and ranks a list of books that contain the search terms.

Since its debut, Google has been the subject of much hyperbole. Legal scholars such as Lawrence Lessig claim that Google Book Search will radically democratize information for every American -- not just academics. Authors like Cory Doctorow applaud Google Book Search for offering them platforms to connect interested readers to particular texts and thus avoid the obscurity of small books getting lost in the mass market. And techno-libertarians like Kevin Kelly have celebrated the transformative nature of electronic texts, arguing that Google Book Search will allow users to connect disparate pieces of information as they see fit, thus evading the tyranny of the book cover and library catalog. This research project would test these claims and get far beyond the particulars of the Book Search program. It would consider the ways that Google’s video hosting services (YouTube and Google Video) are generating legislative and legal action from both content providers such as Viacom and broadband providers like AT&T. Generally, it would consider the ways that Google alters our sense of what is important and trustworthy.

One of the great attractions of Google is that it appears to offer so many powerful services for “free,” that is, for no remuneration. But there is a non-monetary transaction at work between Google and its users. We get Web search, email, Blogger platforms, and YouTube videos. Google gets our habits and predilections so it can more efficiently target advertisements to us. Google’s core business is consumer profiling. It keeps dossiers on all of us. Yet we have no idea how substantial or accurate these digital portraits are. This project will generate a better sense of what is at stake in this “gift” transaction and will generate new theories of corporate surveillance that get beyond the trite “Panopticon” model.

Possible Chapter Outline

Introduction: ".. Like the Mind of God": What Google Wants from Us


Chapter One: "To Organize All the World's Information": From Harnessing Web 1.0 to Generating Web 3.0


Chapter Two: What if Big Ads Don't Work: How Google AdSense has Upended the Industry


Chapter Three: "Don't Be Evil:" Being the Anti-Microsoft


Chapter Four: Is Google a Library?


Chapter Five: Putting the "You" in "YouTube": Challenging Big Media


Chapter Six: The Dossier: How Google Exploits Your Private Information


Chapter Seven: Global Google: How India, China, and Europe are trying to Rein in Google


Chapter Eight: Google Earth: Viewing the World through the Google Lens


Conclusion: A Public Utility?: What we can and should do about Google

arrow

Comments (15)

Just do let you know, line breaks are not coming through on your RSS feed.

You can delete this after its fixed.

Siva Vaidhyanathan on September 25, 2007 10:50 AM:

Thanks! We are working to fix this.

-- Siva

Michael Goldfarb on September 25, 2007 1:16 PM:

Siva,

Your very ability to pose your question online and hope to receive not only answers but what I imagine is a reasonable advance is based on how many people find their way to you via Eric Alterman and find their way to Eric Alterman via Google (in the first instance).

But let's be clear:

I am currently writing a book on the Emancipation of the Jews from the eve of the French Revolution through the Dreyfus Affair. I simply could not write the book in the two years I've been given by my publisher without Google, It is the most effective library retrieval system ever invented ... I research hard copy at the British Library here in London. From the time I order a book until it is in my hands can take anywhere between one hour and ten minutes and two days. Need I say more? I type my search words in Google and hey-presto! Is 95% of what turns up of use? No. but that is what makes research fun and challenging.

I can remember researching at the British Library in the mid-80's and finding one's way through a card catalogue was just about impossible.

Google is a great invention and by keeping it free to the user via selling advertising it does those who use it as I do a great service. But I could be biased, years ago I made a radio documentary entitled Pax Americana, it has had a second life in recent years as people have googled the phrase while they do their own research on the subject of the American imperium and find themselves directed to my work.

The web is a medium, it's utility is inherently neutral (as TV or radio or the printed page). It is how individuals use the medium that has a moral relevance. If the networks broadcast garbage in seeking the widest demographic so they can charge advertisers a lot of money I think that is immoral (given TV's power to shape a world view) but the medium itself is not immoral. With the exception of kowtowing to China I don't know what Sergei and Larry have done wrong .. except be very, very big.

Michael Goldfarb
author, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq

abcdefghhijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

Google destroys the simplest organizing principles, which we all can understand, like the alphabet, and replaces them with complex formulas that only a geek elite can understand or manipulate.


I prefer wikipedia.

I just wanted to reply to a lot of what Mr. Goldfarb said in his comment.

As a academic library student, I see hundreds of undergraduates and read dozens of scholarly articles about their research habits. More and more their search strategies involve typing a few words in a search box and taking what comes. And, congruently, studies show that they make less of a distinction between Google, the library catalogue, and a journal database search function. That is, all three are taken as equal. They are not equal--and further, they are not even unequal in the same proportions for each discipline.

You may comment that you have a number of years of successful research under your belt, and you are qualified to make the judgement between what is 95% junk and what is 5% gold. Yet, as Google and those companies like it erode the distinction between what is produced by corporations and what is specially selected by experts, including those of us in the library world who have undergraduate, postgraduate and now professional training in their chosen fields, those who come after you will find it much more difficult to be as successful as you have become.

And, perhaps you didn't get the message, but no medium is without bias or is inherently neutral.

• The phenomenological: How does using Google alter our perceptions of the world? Are its search results accurate and appropriate? How is Google changing its search functions through human intervention? Are Google’s search algorithms inherently conservative, i.e. do they favor the establish and thus limit the dynamism of the Web? How will G affect what we know?

A paper that might interest you is: Agreeing to Disagree: Search Engines and their Public Interfaces, presented by Frank McCown with Michael L. Nelson JCDL 2007 http://www.cs.odu.edu/~mln/pubs/jcdl-2007/

I think the "appropriate" question will be interesting to explore: for whom? And, thinking back to some other talks at this year's JCDL, if a vast number of users cannot articulate a reasonable explanation of *how* search engines work (not just how they rank), how do we know whether the results are accurately meeting their expectations?

In other words, a scholar may struggle through lots of different interfaces to private databases, but part of the struggle is the interface designers attempt to communicate what will go on behind the scenes. Google is teaching UI designers to stop doing that, to give people "what they want," and to try to be invisible in the doing.

Who knows, this may be like ordering veal in an elegant restaurant. Order is made, a tasty dish is delivered, the wait staff hardly noticed during a delightful meal with friends. Maybe you really want veal, knowing all that a veal chop entails. Or, maybe you would have ordered something completely different.....

David Parry on September 25, 2007 3:39 PM:

One quick question before the longer comment: Is there a rhetorical difference between Google and "G," you seem to use them interchangeably in the above, but thought maybe you were driving at something?

I think what most interests me about the questions you pose is the phenomenological level, and I am subsequently curious to see how this level gets differentiated from the rest, as it seems to both inform all of the others, and perhaps be the one which is most difficult to get a grasp on (this might be my disciplinary bias however). This initial frame made we wonder to what extent a Googleable archive pre-structures what can be recorded in that archive. That is on some level things don't exist unless google can find them, and not everything can be found by google, ergo certain types of structures don't exist. In some sense I guess I am taking a stance against the idea that a tool is neutral, and rather suggesting that there is no such thing as a neutral tool. Maybe even before altering our perceptions of the world (and I realize this is only the intro) Google is altering what there is in the world to perceive. More on this later as you disseminate more information.
Happy to see that academics are becoming public intellectuals in their work, and look forward to reading more.

Daniel Brandt on September 25, 2007 4:47 PM:

Your forthcoming book needs a chapter on Wikipedia. Over half of Wikipedia's impressive traffic comes from Google searches.

-- Daniel Brandt
www.google-watch.org
www.wikipedia-watch.org
www.scroogle.org

Alastair Dunning on September 26, 2007 10:05 AM:

Above, Steven made the comment that students are unable to make critical distinction between different sources of information - "studies show that they make less of a distinction between Google, the library catalogue, and a journal database search function."

This seems to be an area where kicking up and fuss and complaining that this is happening, just won't work. Google, or at least similar mechanisms, are here to stay. Students will continue to use them whatever others write about them.

But we need to make sure that students re-learn these distinctions that Steven mentions. Thus what's needed is much better training in information literacy. Schools, colleges and universities need to spend much more time telling their students (and the public) about how to understand and interpret the Internet resources and tools. And government needs to be much more pro-active in promoting this agenda.

You confused revenues with profits when you state: "Its revenue has more than doubled to $3 billion per year since the offering."

Revenue is synonymous with total sales. Net income or profit is what's left over after expenses have been paid(salaries, massages and equipment). Correctly, you should say "its net income or profit rose tenfold to 3 billion." This corrected statement is even more amazing.

If you look here:

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/is?s=GOOG&annual

You will see its gross revenues tripled and its net income rose ten times! Another important fact is it's net-income expressed as a percent of revenues, this is thirty percent. Compare that to five percent for grocery stores, seven percent for an evil defense contractor like Lockheed Martin, eleven percent for a greedy bank like Washington Mutual, ten percent for a rapacious oil company like Exxon/Mobil, ten percent for a villified telecom like AT&T and fourteen percent for a punk monopolist like Microsoft. I believe Google may be more profitable than casinos and state lotteries. I will see if I can find some data to back that up. It's irrelevant to your book but interesting.

I appreciate the culture and society aspects of what you are presenting but I am not so sure the business case for Google is sound, in the long-term. Google is an advertising business and there is a finite limit to the number of ad dollars which can be spent and collected in any given year. There will always be a case to be made for billboards, print, TV and other media. Google will never collect all the dollars. That's the utimate limit to its growth.

Additionally, Google may be the king of general search, for now, but there are always new types of search being developed which Google either can't sink its teeth into or can't be monetized(see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119067606849638002.html ). Google Book Search and Google Earth are really cool apps but how do they translate into profits? I don't know and neither does Google. You can't run a business by pouring money into projects with no clue how to turn a profit on them. That's precisely what Google does. They freely admit it. This is not to say Google won't do much damage in the meantime. In fact, their non-business-minded behavior might create even more harm than if they behaved more rationally. Consider that.

Siva, you wrote . . .

The company [Google] itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical questions in its way: they are engineers. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system yet to be fixed or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or flat plane of glass. It is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And more importantly, as a publicly traded company, must act in its own short-term interest despite its altruistic proclamations.

literally five minutes before i read that, i had read the following article, Resisting Technology by Ravi Agarwal in the Sarai Reader 03.

The production and use of technology resides in the control of it, and possibly in its very nature. Gandhi, very importantly, argued that the logic of modern technology, like that of modern science, does not integrate the moral question. Are the values in which they are based fundamentally flawed and inherently destructive and polluting? The medicalisation of childbirth leads to machines like the Ultrasound 'serving" to abort female fetuses. . . . Technology without a moral dimension is rudderless, a monster let loose, cloning itself and now life as well.

i realize you are not going in with such a dystopian view but i was struck with how unusual it is these days to see someone even raise the "moral dimension." i'm very excited to watch this work unfold in public.

Alastair Dunning on September 26, 2007 6:03 PM:

Just replying briefly to Jardiner01. I think Google has a pretty reasonably good idea of how Book Search and Earth will make money.

Book Search will lead users to books and related books that were previously impossible to find. Users will go to Book Search because of that's the only place to find those books. A percentage of the users will click on the adverts, particularly if the adverts apply to stuff related to the otherwise difficult-to-find content they found via Book Search in the first place. This might not be a high percentage, but enough to make Google a tidy profit.

The potential for using the mapping abilities of Google Earth on a commercial scale is huge. Sure, it may available to single end users for free but if you are a big cooperation there will be advantages in using a tailored version of Google Earth for some specific tasks. A superficial example - British Airways is using images from Google Earth in some of their current publicity.

Whether you love Google or hate it, one thing is clear: librarians and other information professionals can't afford to ignore it.

I happen to be a fan of Google. I use their products daily, and I'm not just talking about search: I think gmail is the best web-based email out there, and Google Documents has all but replaced my local office software. I increasingly use Google Book Search at work, too, because it links to my own library's catalog and OCLC at the same time, saving me several steps if I end up having to request an Interlibrary Loan for a customer.

I also admire the Google Foundation's philanthropic efforts. They aim to fight poverty by bringing tech training and real jobs (not exploitative "cheap labor" jobs but management positions) to Africa. And they are investing heavily in various green technology projects targeting global warming.

Google's founders claim to want nothing more than to make the world better, and believe they can do so and turn a profit at the same time, everybody wins. Is this possible? Is the skepticism they have drawn from Siva and others healthy or unwarranted? Is it so bad for everything to be googlized?

I look forward to following this one closely.

Michel Bauwens on September 29, 2007 10:23 AM:

Hi Siva, you may be interested in the following hypothesis from http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Netarchical_Capitalism:

"Netarchical capitalism is a hypothesis about the emergence of a new segment of the capitalist class (the owners of financial or other capital), which is no longer dependent on the ownership of intellectual property rights (hypothesis of cognitive capitalism), nor on the control of the media vectors (hypothesis of MacKenzie Wark in his book The Hacker's Manifesto), but rather on the development and control of participatory platforms."

The key is that value is no longer produced by these companies, but that there is a double logic at play: civil society's individuals and groups create the value, but mostly not along monetary lines, and the aggregated attention is the scarce good that can be captured in monetary terms. In this sharing economy, focused around the creative expressions of only loosely aggregated individuals, third party platforms are needed, as opposed to the commons economy such as Linux and Wikipedia, where more strongly aggregated individuals are able to sustain their own infrastructures.

In the sharing economy, there is a underlying social contract, between the community pole, which asks a context for sharing, and the for-profit pole, which is allowed to make a profit out of the activity. Such companies have to behave as dolphins in the sharing economy, but are competing as sharks against other platform player, hence their contradictory behaviour. There good intentions are necessary for the dolphin part, but are counterbalanced by other necessities, so they can never be 'not evil'in any pure sense. However, the community of users is not powerless, as most of the time, alternatives are or can be made available.

There is also an added issue that much more user value is created, it is augmenting exponentially, as compared to the linear growth of the monetization potential. So a lot of the valuation of such companies is speculative about future earnings, and Eben Moglen for example, believes Google has feet of clay in that respect.

I believe that in the end, netarchical companies are both allies and adversaries of the communities. We need them to share, and they also have an interest in the further evolution of a free and open culture, so they often take positions that are congruent with the shift to a participatory culture; but because of their shark genes, they are only partial allies, and the community has to have the literacy to be aware of this, and to mobilize if necessary.


Richard J. Cox on October 23, 2007 8:47 AM:

You write, "Google has utterly infiltrated our culture. It is a ubiquitous brand, used as a noun and a verb everywhere from adolescent conversations to scripts for Sex and the City. Its stock price soared in value after its initial offering in 2004, although it has eroded by nearly 30 percent from its peak in the early months of 2006. Its revenue has more than doubled to $3 billion per year since the offering. Since the initial public offering Google has aggressively acquired other firms like the video-hosting site YouTube and the Internet advertising company DoubleClick. The core service of Google.com – its Web search engine – handles more than 50 percent of the Web search business in the United States and is growing at an impressive rate."

This statement reminds me of XEROX, and I am wondering what kinds of parallels we can see in the electrostatic copying business of 40 years ago and what is going on in the Internet business of today? Are they so different as not to be comparable? I wonder. Many people today still speak of xeroxing when they go about their task of photocopying, but there are of course many competitors out there with XEROX and it seems that the competition has ultimately been good for this kind of enterprize. I think what so many people worry about is how large Google is and how fast it is growing -- wondering if Google will deliver on its promises or if it can deliver on its promises. We have experienced other dot.com bubble bursts, and this should cause us to be a bit more conservative in what we sign over to Google or the faith we have in. A change in leadership, a bump in the economy, or the temptation of new (but shakier) worlds to conquer and we could see this company veer off into dangerous ground.

Post a comment

We had to crank up the spam filter so it may take a little while to appear. Thanks.

A book in progress by

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Siva Vaidhyanathan

This blog, the result of a collaboration between myself and the Institute for the Future of the Book, is dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google's ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? [more]

» Send me links, questions and ideas:
siva [at] googlizationofeverything [dot] com

» Visit my main blog: SIVACRACY.NET

» More about me

Topics

Like the Mind of God (6 posts)

All the World's Information (5 posts)

What If Big Ads Don't Work (4 posts)

Don't Be Evil (3 posts)

Is Google a Library? (15 posts)

Challenging Big Media (11 posts)

The Dossier (3 posts)

Global Google (1 post)

Google Earth (no posts)

A Public Utility? (7 posts)

About this Book (7 posts)

Other books by Siva:


Rewiringcover.jpg

Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)


The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004)


Copyrights and copywrongs cover

Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York University Press, 2001)

Links

  • Sivacracy.net
  • if:book
RSS Feed icon  RSS Feed


Powered by Movable Type 3.35