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Let me be clear. What Google.org is doing should be applauded. It's experimental, innovative, and bold. Those are three characteristics that the philanthropic world could use more of.

The best account of Google.org can be found in this article from The Economist.

... Within a short time Google.org had compiled a list of over 1,000 ideas. These were reduced to 11, focused on the world's “biggest, most imminent, least well resourced problems”. Each of the 11 was allocated to a different member of the Google.org team, who acted as its advocate in a process of further scrutiny and selection that Dr Brilliant likens to being in court. This led to the five initiatives announced this week. In these deliberations, the focus was on what Google specifically had to offer in each area, given its technological and engineering capabilities, mastery of information, entrepreneurial culture and global reach.

In broad terms, the outcome is not terribly surprising. Google.org will pursue five “core initiatives” in three areas: fighting climate change (a particular obsession of Messrs Brin and Page); economic development (a passion of Sheryl Sandberg, the unseen driving force behind the creation of Google.org); and building an early-warning system for pandemics and other disasters—something Dr Brilliant wished for when he won the 2006 TED Prize, which first brought him to Google's attention. ...

You may have read my comments about Google.org in The New York Times last week. The Voice of America also did a segment on Google.org and quoted me as the chief critic.

Here is what the Times ran from me:

"It's wonderful that this company is devoting massive resources to fixing big world problems, but they are taking an engineer's perspective to them," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia. "Machines and software are not always the answer. Global problems arise from how humans have undervalued each other and miscommunicated with each other."

Vaidhyanathan pointed to Google.org's decision not to take a step like financing scholarships for girls in India who have not had access to education.

"That's what is so naïve about Google.org's approach," he said. "If you can educate a thousand girls in one state in India, you've already made a bigger difference than 99 percent of the human beings on earth because every one of those girls can make a difference."

I want to expand on this thought. Newspapers can't quote everything from a long conversation. And they are structured to generate and emphasize strong disagreement over subtle critiques. That's why I sound so unsubtle in that quote.

The fact is, these types of initiatives track what Google does well: efficiently filter information and mine large bodies of data. The world of philanthropy could probably use a strong dose of all that.

However, my discussions with foundations and others involved in philanthropy indicate that they have already been "Googlized," i.e. they already adopt market-oriented and encourage tech-savvy interventions. So while Google might do this stuff better, faster, and bigger than others, the style of this approach is not revolutionary. Nor is it likely to make a substantial difference in most of the areas of concern.

The exception is climate change. I think Google's style and approach to climate change can make a quick and substantial difference.

My critical comments were focused on one core element of Google.org's agenda, economic development. Google.org, much like the Earth Institute, seems attached to the notion that better distribution of information will make a huge difference in the developing world. To this I have three responses.

First, better information and information technology is helpful, but it is very expensive and can have unintended consequences (such as pollution, social balkanization, etc.).

Second, there is no such place as "the developing world." India, Brazil, Mexico, and China are special cases: huge, dynamic economies with hundreds of millions of poor people left behind. Yet India is not China is not Mexico is not Brazil. The specifics of each economy and society matter. Similarly, there are substantial differences among the challenges facing Sudan, Angola, Nigeria, and Senegal. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the wide array of problems facing the poor in each of these countries.

And third, Google's approach does not address problems such as corruption, resource depletion, ethnic and sexual violence, and basic infrastructure issues.

Mr. Brilliant may have meditated his way around India. But my experience in India teaches me that if 40 percent of the people can't read, and most of them are girls, then all the laptops, mobile phones, and databases in the world are not going to make a difference. The schools are decrepit. The teachers are underpaid. And girls are considered disposable. Until India decides that girls are human beings worthy of opportunities and respect, nothing will improve for the poor.

That's why this techno-fundamentalist approach to development will not make too big a difference. It might make a small difference in a lot of places. It might make a large difference in a few places.

Still, this world needs a lot more experimentation. I applaud Google.org for taking and experimental stand and hope that modesty and patience prevails as their efforts start to seem frustrating and futile. In the world of economic development, frustration and futility are the default emotions. Google.org will soon learn this.


Comments (1)

Your point about educating women in nations with significant culturally enforced literacy gaps is an important one that I think is also sometimes missed by the similarly "techno-fundamentalist" One Laptop Per Child Initiative. See http://virtualpolitik.blogspot.com/2007/08/story-about-bicycles.html for a critique of OLPC on this issue.

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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]

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Like the Mind of God (22 posts)

All the World's Information (26 posts)

What If Big Ads Don't Work (10 posts)

Don't Be Evil (9 posts)

Is Google a Library? (43 posts)

Challenging Big Media (18 posts)

The Dossier (19 posts)

Global Google (3 posts)

Google Earth (3 posts)

A Public Utility? (19 posts)

About this Book (16 posts)

Other books by Siva:


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)


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