If you’ve ever been troubled by Google’s seemingly omnipotent presence, its domination over the Internet, or just the sheer size of the behemoth company, then you might consider reading this book. I typically don’t go for nonfiction because I prefer arguments and ideals to be subtly embedded within a fictional framework, but overall, I am glad that I took the time to read it. Although Siva Vaidhyanathan is Professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, The Googlization of Everything reads less like an academic text and more like a long-form article in Time. I say this largely because most of Vaidhyanathan’s arguments are on the superficial side; there are both merits and drawbacks to his more casual approach. I wouldn’t read The Googlization of Everything if you want a critical analysis of the way in which information itself has been re-defined in the digital age. Instead, I would consider this a primer on the history and founding of Google, as well as a broad overview of its business practices. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know a bit more about one of the most important companies in operation today. That caveat aside, Siva Vaidhyanathan has a refreshingly skeptical attitude toward Google. Most people I know don’t think twice about typing terms into the search box. Vaidhyanathan examines this uncritical attitude and reveals how the general public’s unquestioning acceptance of Google is made possible through the conceit of technofundamentalism. Technofundamentalism can be loosely defined as “the unquestioning embrace of all that technology has to offer, believing that it holds the answer to every problem” (source). Because of this almost mythological belief that technology is the key to human progress, everyone—from the U.S. government, to libraries, to consumers—has allowed Google’s growth to proceed virtually unchecked. Granted, some of Google’s intrusions have come with huge benefits, e.g. an ordered and searchable Internet. At the same time, Vaidhyanathan cautions us to be skeptical of Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” At the end of the day, Google is a corporation that is motivated by profits, growth, and the market, something that, as Vaidhyanathan emphasizes, is all too easy to forget. In my opinion, the most valuable argument that Vaidhyanathan makes has to do with the concept of “public failure.” The privileging of private, corporate, and individual interests over the common good has allowed several crucial public institutions in the United States to fail—from schools to libraries to the prison system. Basically, what happens is that taxpayers are unwilling to shoulder the justifiably substantial costs of running these institutions. Budgets are slashed, but the institutions are held to increasingly higher standards. When the institutions finally (and predictably) fail, the public declares their existence unsustainable.
Public 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…The public institutions that were supposed to provide services were prevented from doing so. Private actors filled the vacuum… In such circumstances, the failure of public institutions gives rise to the circular logic that dominates political debate. Public institutions can fail; public institutions need tax revenue; therefore we must reduce the support for public institutions. The resulting failures then supply more anecdotes supporting the view that public institutions fail by design rather than by political choice. (p. 41)
It was in this atmosphere that Google stepped in and took on the monumental task of making sense of the Internet. Should this have been handled by a private corporation? Was Google given more trust than it deserved? Should libraries have attempted to tackle the vast expanse of the Internet? Should there have been intergovernmental treaties? The point that Vaidhyanathan makes is that while Google might have been a viable contender in this conversation, the conversation never happened. Google declared its interest, and Google has dominated the interwebs ever since. Indeed, why should the government have bothered with designing a sophisticated search algorithm when a private corporation could do it efficiently and, seemingly, for free? The problem, as Vaidhyanathan emphasizes again and again, is that privacy, both collective and individual, is the price that must be paid in order to access all of that “free” information. Google tracks every search you conduct, records information about your search preferences, your political beliefs, where you live, and how much money you earn. People are (hopefully still) disgusted when they discover that the government is spying on them, yet don’t think twice about surrendering all of their personal information to a private company. Furthermore, as more and more information moves exclusively into the online domain, libraries and other public institutions no longer seem like necessary repositories of human knowledge. Why bother keeping the physical book when you can just scan it and put it online for everyone to read? Ignoring the tangle of copyright complications, of course.
The drawbacks of The Googlization of Everything are twofold. First, the book was published in 2011, meaning that it is simultaneously dated (several important court decisions have been handed down in the intervening years) as well as too little, too late. Conversations about the meaning of the Internet have circulated in academia since the technology’s inception—yet Vaidhyanathan doesn’t seem to acknowledge most of those conversations. Many of his reservations have been expressed elsewhere, time and time and time again, though perhaps not as comprehensively as in his book. Or perhaps I have misunderstood the issue. Perhaps there truly aren’t many academics who are concerned about Google’s omnipotence and the way the company both expands and curtails access to knowledge. It’s not a sector of academia that I am terribly familiar with, so perhaps the oversight is my own, not Vaidhyanathan’s. At any rate, Vadhyanathan began a conversation, but he didn’t conclude it.
Second, Vaidhyanathan is a victim of the very technofundamentalism that he decries. I got the sense that he was never able to entirely separate his respect for Google from his criticism of the company, which is a shame, as I think it prevented him from delving into deeper critiques. His first chapter, entitled “The Gospel of Google,” is an obvious allusion to Genesis and the creation of the world as we know it. This was undoubtedly a tongue-in-cheek decision, but it unwittingly revealed Vaidhyanathan’s perception of Google as a company of Biblical proportions. Technofundamentalism is the unquestioning, almost mythological, belief in technology, yes, but it’s also a broader form of myopia, in which people are unable to discuss technology in relation to the forces that shape its creation, distribution, and use. In other words, what is our contemporary, philosophical relationship with knowledge? How does this enable the concept of a “public failure?” How does the disconnect between individual privacy vs. individual consumption of “free” goods arise? What, besides apathy and inattention on behalf of the public, could explain Google’s meteoric ascent? I don’t believe that Vaidhyanathan provided satisfying answers to these questions, and perhaps that wasn’t the task he set out to fulfill with his book. Overall, I don’t think he wasn’t critical enough. That said, until Vaidhyanathan speculated as to what might happen to the billions, if not trillions, of webpages that Google has copied & stored as cached pages if the company were ever to be sold, or, even more improbably, go bankrupt, I have to admit that I had never, in my entire life, imagined a world without Google. I never thought, at any point, that Google would ever, could ever, cease to exist. This reveals my own status as a technofundamentalist. Google is like Standard Oil, the massive, horizontal oil company that dominated the United States from 1870 to 1911, until the Supreme Court ruled that it violated anti-trust laws. That was oil. This is the history and intellectual output of a huge swath of the human population, from the late 1990s onward. When Standard Oil failed, other oil companies stepped in. But which company, government, or nonprofit will be able to take on the role that Google has assumed? Nobody, including myself, likes to think about that. For further reading on the subject of technology, information, and how the Internet has changed ways of knowing, here is a series of three excellent articles that I recommend:
The Disconnectionists – By far the best article I’ve read about digital connectivity, the call to “unplug” from our devices, and the newly-created anxiety over whether we aren’t engaging in “real life” because we spend too much time browsing the Internet.
The Limits of the Digital Humanities – The author explains why technology, no matter how sophisticated, can’t ever replace critical analysis or contextualized research. 5 Things I Learned from Deactivating Facebook – A student explains how, contrary to popular belief, digital networks are inherently tied to physical networks, not a bastardized versions of them. Overall rating, The Googlization of Everything: 3.5/5 stars Photo credit: GvL