Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) is a challenging, if flawed, book. Vaidhyanathan’s central premise is that we should work to influence or regulate search systems like Google (and, presumably, Yahoo! and Bing) to take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge to us, the citizens of the world. In addition to pursuing this premise, the book tries to deflate the hyperbole around contemporary technical systems by arguing against notions of technological determinism/utopianism.
As I will discuss, the book largely succeeds in pointing to reasons why regulation is an important policy instrument to keep available. The book also attempts to situate itself within the science and technology studies field, and here it is less successful. Ultimately, while Vaidhyanathan offers insight into Google itself – its processes, products, and implications of using the company’s systems – he is less successful in digging into the nature of technology, Google, culture, and society at a theoretical level. This leaves the reader with an empirical understanding of the topic matter without significant analytic resources to unpack the theoretical significance of their newfound empirical understandings.
Essential Assumptions and Key Facts
Vaidhyanathan quickly establishes a key condition to his argument early in the book, writing that
If Google is the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it has remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases (valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of preservation) are built into algorithms. And those biases affect how we value things, perceive things, and navigate the worlds of culture and ideas (7).
By the conclusion of the book we are left with less clarity concerning the veracity of these statements. Is Google or Facebook (and other social networking sites) key to understanding the local and global? If not Google, then does it retain its “remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions”? While the author does indicate that Google is widely used, by the end of the book the degree to which individuals use Google as their “primary lens” to view the world is unclear. As a result, the extent to which Google’s biased algorithms are influential in policy making and agenda setting are less obvious than implied.
The author argues that Google should not be seen as a ‘monopoly problem’. Instead, we should ask about what Google does, specifically, and how its actions contrast against competitors’. Further, we should ascertain what competitors might do in the future – is Google foreclosing possibilities or opening up new spaces where competition might thrive? Such competition is unlikely to come from the state in its present configuration because Google’s very success is predicated on the state’s public failures. Such failures occur whenever
instruments of the state cannot satisfy public needs and deliver services effectively. This failure occurs not necessarily because the state is the inappropriate agent to solve a particular problem … it may occur when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfunded, while expectations for its performance remain high (40-1).
Today’s state still possesses a key tool: regulation. In line with many commentators, Vaidhyanathan raises the question of whether Google or other elements of the information economy are appropriately regulated, with the argument being that they are not. Lack of regulation is perhaps most significant when considering Google’s interests in hosting and serving content (through services like Blogger and Picasa) and scan and service services (such as Streetview and Books). Given Google’s role in providing these service-types the state should be more involved in mediating and overseeing them.
Turning to search, Google’s approach to identifying value – links – establishes as kind of techno-centric currency that favours “high-motivated and Web-savvy interests over truly popular, important, or valid interests. Being popular or important on the Web is not the same as being popular or important in the real world” (62-3). One can quickly ask questions of what ‘popularity’ is defined as and whether it inherently has a link to the normative positioning of the ‘real world’ as a site of ‘truly’ popular, important or valid interests. This evokes a strong normative rhetoric emphasizing particular conditions of knowledge generation over others without effectively defining the legitimacy or drawing on theory that prioritizes ‘real world’ methods of evaluating knowledge over digitally driven approaches.
Google and Privacy
There is a sustained critique on Google’s general approach to privacy in the book, with Vaidhyanathan (generally) arguing that Google lacks transparency in its actions and thus limits uses’ sustained awareness of the universality of Google’s surveillance. Though Vaidhyanathan is generally critical of the surveillance studies literature – pointing to Lyon and those most closely associated with Queens’ efforts to unpack surveillance as a site of academic investigation – he nevertheless recognizes that Google is (at an ontological level?) “a system of almost universal surveillance, yet it operates so quietly that at times it’s hard to discern” (84).
In his account of Google and privacy, Vaidhyanathan writes that “Mayer and Google in general misunderstand privacy. Privacy is not something that can be counted, divided, or “traded.” It is not a substance or collection of data points. It’s just a word that we clumsily use to stand in for a wide array of values and practices that influence how we manage our reputations in various contexts” (87). Subsequently he draws out an interesting set of “privacy interfaces” through which our reputations are ‘managed’. Specifically, these interfaces include:
- person-to-power (e.g. student to teacher)
Google and other online vendors have an obligation to present effective ways for users to manage their privacy and, as it stands now, this is not the case. An important point that Vaidhyanathan draws out is that “[c]elebrating freedom and user autonomy is one of the great rhetorical ploys of the global information economy … meaningful freedom implies real control over the conditions of one’s life. Merely setting up a menu with switches does not serve the interests of any but the most adept, engaged, and well-informed” (89). It is truly unfortunate that many of the so-called ‘privacy options’ in large web environments amount to confused check boxes that are oftentimes ill-defined, mutable over time, and coated in legalese. Vaidhyanathan doesn’t go far enough, however, because his critique isn’t extended t consider what it would mean for companies like Google to seriously include society in the construction of a privacy policies or settings.
Google, Revolution, and Information Policy
New information technologies are often credited for events far in excess of the tools’ capabilities. Such excesses – or hyperbole – adhere to the mythification of communications systems when first launch (Mosco’s The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace is an excellent read on the subject). Vaidhyanathan recognizes that while new communications systems can amplify existing structures and processes, amplification is possible only when “the movement already has form, support, substance, and momentum. Technologies are far from neutral, but neither do they inherently support either freedom or oppression” (123). While true when speaking to the inherent value of technologies, it can nevertheless be stated that certain technical systems contain structural biases that may lend themselves to particular social configurations and uses. An automatic firearm or intercontinental ballistic missile contains one value set, whereas a garden planter or wine cork arguably possesses a significantly different set.
When speaking on the future of information policy, we read that the Google Books project might best be read as an attempt to radically change policy by a class-action lawsuit instead of via actual public policy decisions. While there is, admittedly, a serious concern with such efforts and policy changes they are not new: a glance at telecom policy developments/reform in America and Canada alike over the past decade reveal agreements and conflicts between private companies as drivers of state action/configuration. Nevertheless, the hijacking of what are clearly public matters by private corporations motivated by profit is disturbing and something that needs to be addressed at the highest level.
From the outset of the book I had expected a persistent and engaged questioning of the normative conditions undergirding Google’s projects. Unfortunately, I found a (largely) uncritical argument that was committed to elite notions of what constitutes truth and normative presuppositions of what constitutes valid scholarly inquiry. Together, this combination limited the analytic rigour of Vaidhyanathan’s arguments or their capacity to ‘travel well’ to other sites of analysis.
Consider his examination of Google Scholar. The product ranks different articles based on the citations they receive. When searching the tool users are given results from across the disciplines. This kind of tool brings the titles of academic research to the public’s eye (access to articles is another matter…) but the service is apparently problematic. Why? Because, “according to academic librarians, Google Scholar has been constructed with Google’s usual high level of opacity and without serious consideration of the needs and opinions of scholars” (192). While true that many of the search features of ‘academic’ search engines are lacking Vaidhyanathan (and his uncited ‘academic librarians’) misses the importance of design: do present modes of academic search meet his objective of a system that allows for the easy acquisition of knowledge? No. Instead they demand high levels of training and skill to use. Thus, under his argument against Google’s privacy options it would seem as though the present ‘scholarly’ search methods are as bankrupt as Google’s privacy options, with the major difference being that we can trust librarians because of their ethos of protecting users and information.
So, librarians are a trusted source of knowledge filtering and the university remains a bastion of knowledge accumulation and storage. While both of these statements are (arguably) true they contain germs of modernist assumptions concerning appropriate repositories of knowledge. These trusted sources – which are ostensibly meant to work in the public interest – are to be relied upon in establishing a new information economy. Impressing this role on the elites without a sustained engagement with their own histories, projects, biases, and the lack of sustained consideration of how the ignorant end-users who are victims to Google can contribute to a new knowledge economy is a critical weakness of the book. It speaks to a placement of priorities that is out of line with the integration of worldly experiences of daily users.
Accompanying this presupposed valuing of the elites are hosts of normative assertions that lack the critical engagements one would expect from a science and technologies studies scholar. Consider:
It is only common sense that we should support policies meant to foster innovation and the cheap, easy acquisition of knowledge. What that infrastructure should look like, however, and how we can achieve it, are questions we need to consider very seriously (201).
By evoking the term ‘common sense’ any competing priorities or worldviews are immediately dismissed. Perhaps the statement is, in fact, accurate but the necessary conjoining of ‘innovation’ and ‘cheap easy acquisition’ of knowledge may lack logical coherence for a ‘tribal group’ (which Vaidhyanathan links with minority cultures suffering from cultural oppression and extinction) that values the stability of technology and culture, and that values the challenge of self- and technical-mastery. Such tribal/cultural bodies, perhaps encouraged to retain cohesion through the Web and Google, lack clear integration with the infrastructure that must be achieved. Their concerns, ostensibly, are not serious enough to take into consideration.
Consider also bold statements about the nature of humanity: we “seek maximum speed and dexterity rather than deliberation and wisdom” (80). While this might be true in many cases, the broad generalization limits the argument that Google must be watched because they feed off such flawed human instincts. While perhaps true that Google feeds on certain facets of how key elements of the elite engage with information it doesn’t necessarily follow that humanity as a whole engages similarly. As a result we see a colonization of the potentialities of humanity and thus suggestions on how key facets of the information economy are to be regulated without a broad and sustained analysis – normative statements back-fill what should be normative arguments and thus permit policy discussions that preclude non-elite participation.
There are also dismissive accounts of entire branches of the academy, with cultural imperialism in particular being termed a “useless cliche” that is “in severe need of revisions” on the basis that scholars of cultural imperialism are “ignoring real and serious imbalances in the political economy of culture” (109). This is all done in the space of a single paragraph, and without real consideration of the back and forth in this field. Vaidhyanathan is effectively staking his ground in an editorializing fashion. He similarly dismisses the leading scholars in Surveillance Studies – never bothering to genuinely engage with the literature in any sense – though recommends Kevin Haggerty as taking a “refreshing approach to studying surveillance without the Panopticon model”.
His analysis of Habermas, a key thinker that engages with what it means to develop a public sphere, is frightfully limited to the point of being inaccurate. After stating that concern “for the fate of the nation or local affairs … drove people to assemble and deliberate” he moves on to assert that the “global public sphere, however, is necessarily cosmopolitan in temperament. Therefore, members of a global public sphere must culturally cohere in some way. Either they must share a language, or they must share a value system and a common notion of trust and validity. We are far from having such a system, and it’s not clear that it’s in everyone’s interest to create one” (137). This positioning of Habermas fails to recognize that deliberation itself constitutes a process of testing and retesting validity claims that constitute a conditional, temporally approximate, understandings of truth or knowledge. It similarly fails to acknowledge key lessons from Habermas’ Inclusion of the Other, namely that while language is a key element to the deliberative process an identically configured life-world is not the aim of deliberative politics. Instead, the goal of any cosmopolitan body ought to be the fulfilment of essential democratizing principles that aspire to respect the conditions for discourse and dignity of the person. Habermas is arguing for a conditional, post-metaphysical realization of truth and cosmopolitan principles rather than the (near) metaphysical conditions for democracy and cosmopolitanism that are ascribed by Vaidhyanathan.
At the conclusion of the book I was admittedly disappointed: I felt let down by Vaidhyanathan after he’d promised a serious science and technology studies analysis of Google and instead provided a liberal, relatively non-critical, examination of Google. Non-critical shouldn’t be taken in the sense that critiques weren’t put forth to Google but in the sense that this text is not situated within the auspice of critical theory. This lacking doesn’t make the book bad, though it does limit what could have been a more introspective accounting of both Google and the society that it exists within.
If you’re looking for theory about the process of technology’s mythification and its demystification then I’d recommend Mosco’s The Digital Sublime. If you’re looking for a critical, cutting edge, accounting of technology in society then I’d suggest you pick up Feenburg’s Between Reason and Experience. If you’re looking for an overview of Google and the challenges that many liberal scholars, legal analysts, privacy advocates, and copyright lawyers have with the company then this book for you.