There have been a few popular books in recent years detailing Google's ascent in the digital world, notably Ken Auletta's Googled: The End of the World as We Know It and Jeff Jarvis's What Would Google Do. But there is another story, says author and media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan.
In his new book, The Googlization of Everything: And Why We Should Worry (Univ. of California Press) Vaidhyanathan explores the young company's increasingly dominant role not just online but in our lives. "What is most fascinating about Google to me is its effect on us," the author tells PW. "Its effect on the media business is interesting, but I wanted to write a book that could inform a casual Google user about some of the hazards and habits of Google. In that sense, my book is much more about us than it is about Google. In fact, the critical faults of the story I tell are ours, because we've become so addicted to getting more stuff, faster, for free."
Google is a ubiquitous presence in our lives. We search the Web on Google, watch videos on YouTube, write with Google Docs, e-mail with Gmail. There's Google Maps, Google Scholar, Images, Blogger, Street View; there's Google TV, plans for Google Music, and a translation product still developing. There's a Google reference service that texts results to your smartphone, and, yeah, there's a Google smartphone. There's a Google browser, Chrome, and of course there is Google Book Search and the newly launched Google eBooks store. Wherever you are, it seems, there Google is. According to last week's New York Times, Google is now even investing in low-income housing.
Indeed, we are awed by and increasingly dependent on the brilliant, free tools Google rolls out for us. But as Vaidhyanathan warns, while free, Google is not without a cost. As much as we use Google, Google uses us. And for all we don't know about the company, the company sure knows a lot about us, collecting and parsing information about our habits with every click.
"What really put me over the edge is when I read a quote from [Google cofounder] Sergey Brin, who was asked in an interview what would the perfect search engine be?" Vaidhyanathan tells PW over coffee at New York's Morgan Library. "He responded: ‘it would be like the mind of God.' I thought, any company with a leader who thinks like that has to have a deeper book, and we really have to look at the nature of our relationship with Google."
Unlike some of Google's harsher critics, Vaidhyanathan doesn't think the company is evil, and he doesn't see a conspiracy to rule the world. But the speed with which the company has come to dominate our information world should give us pause, he argues. And before we cede institutions and ways of doing things that have been in place for decades—even centuries—to a nascent company that often works in secrecy, we should ask ourselves what we are getting—and what we are giving up.
Perhaps nowhere is that more in evidence than in the way the controversial Google Book Settlement came down. Now almost a year since its February 18, 2009, fairness hearing, the settlement still awaits approval, and however it goes, Vaidhyanathan says, the process has shown us what is at stake in the rapidly "Googlizing" future.
PW caught up with Vaidhyanathan to talk about Google, and what the still unapproved Google Book Settlement can teach us about the ways and means of a company that has become a cornerstone of modern life in less than a decade.
In the introduction you write that Google increasingly determines what is important and relevant to us. Can you explain what you mean by that?
The assumption for years has been that Google merely aggregates our decisions, perceptions, and our judgments. But it's not that simple. Google is not without its biases, and I wanted to try to unpack the nature of some of its biases, which, not surprisingly, skew toward what's new, popular, and tech-savvy. The major realization I had in doing this book is that Google now governs the Web, and more because of the choices it makes than the choices we make. Think back to when Google first started. There were a handful of search engines, and if you went to any of them and typed in common words like "Asian" or "facial," you'd get porn sites. It was Google that figured out how to make our Web experience better by filtering—not by censoring or blocking access to porn sites. But while Google is officially content-neutral, de facto it's not, because it filters. For example, it favors certain aspects of page design. That's a good thing, of course. It has made the Web better. But it is also important that we acknowledge what Google does, and that Google now pretty much runs the Web, albeit with our tacit, implicit consent.
|In The Googlization of Everything, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of highly acclaimed books on digital copyright and peer-to-peer networks, takes a critical look at the implications of a Google-dominated information world. The following are some of his observations. |
The speed with which Google has come to rule the information world is stunning. How did Google go from launching a search engine to dominating the Web in less than a decade?
Google recognized early on how the Web fundamentally works—that's the brilliant story. It did not want to be a content-based site, or sell things, or simply digitize the practices of the analogue world. It ranked and linked content. Later, it recognized that people get great satisfaction from expressing themselves and interacting online, and it got into the business of hosting content through things like YouTube and Blogger. Then it began creating content through things like Street View and Book Search. Each of these steps was significant and done with the overarching belief that Google should not be a top-down media company. That's why it never went out and bought properties like the New York Times. YouTube made sense for Google because that's where users express themselves. Why would it buy the New York Times? It already had the New York Times.
It's important to remember, too, that great Internet companies are not just bright people and brilliant code. You have to deliver results fast, and Google bet that if it delivered results faster than Yahoo, it would win. Back in dial-up days, when Google launched it was just a blank screen with a box, so it loaded fast. Later, when the dot-com crash came, in 2000, it put venture capital into the fiber optics and servers other companies were disposing of super-cheap. It literally sank billions into the ground and built massive server farms, so it could have redundancy in its content. We like to think of Google as ephemeral because it's ephemeral in our lives, but it's actually a pretty heavy industry. There's metal, wire, and glass at the heart of Google's success, not just brain power. Google likes to make the claim that two guys in a garage could invent a better search engine tomorrow and wipe Google out, but that's just not true. There's more to Google than algorithms.
You invented the term "Googlization," which can sound pejorative—but it isn't. The book is definitely not anti-Google, even though it is critical. Can you briefly define Googlization?
I am definitely not anti-Google. I love Google, and like most people I use it every day. I think we should deeply respect the work that goes on there. The term Googlization refers to the way people react to the processes and power of Google, to the point where towns and businesses change their names to show up higher in searches, and companies rise and fall because of how they can be Googlized. Individually, we're also being Googlized. Our preferences, prejudices, and predilections are all mined by Google and used to sell us stuff or direct us to new things. Fundamentally, Googlization acknowledges that we are not Google's customers, we are its product. Advertisers are its customers. Now, this isn't a new model or insight. When you watch football on Sunday, the network sells your attention to Ford and Budweiser, and we understand that's why we don't have to pay for watching football directly, just like we don't pay for Google when we use it. But I believe we need to be smarter users of Google, because while it looks simple, it is in fact quite complicated.
|Personal Reality |
Google complicates the ways we manage information about ourselves in three major ways. It collects information from us when we use its services; it copies and makes available trivial or harmful information about us that lies in disparate corners of the Internet; and it actively captures images of public spaces around the world, opening potentially embarrassing or private scenes to scrutiny by strangers—or, sometimes worse, by loved ones. In theory, Google always gives the victim of exposure the opportunity to remove troubling information from Google's collection. But the system is designed to favor maximum collection, maximum exposure, and the permanent availability of everything. One can only manage one's global electronic profile through Google if one understands how the system works—and that there is a system at all. Google is a system of almost universal surveillance, yet it operates so quietly that at times it's hard to discern.
Speaking of simple vs. complicated, Google's motto is "Don't Be Evil" and its mission is to "organize all of the world's information." But can it carry out a mission that ambitious without being a little evil?
No, it can't. This is why Google is encountering so much friction in so many areas of the world right now, and in so many areas of its business. And the more Google moves from its role of ranking and linking content toward the other parts of its business—such as hosting content on YouTube or Street View or Google Books, the more friction it invites, and not just with other industry leaders. There's real social and cultural friction from everyday people. The uprising in Europe over Google Street View, for example, is one of the most fascinating tech stories of the past couple of years, even though it's really a story about basic human dignity, rather than technology.
The book industry knows that friction well. Let's talk about Google's controversial book-scanning program and the settlement. One of the chief concerns you've voiced in the book is how Google's audacious fair use defense was in fact dangerous. Can you explain?
Fair use is something I believe deeply in, and something I depend on every day in my work. But I don't pretend it's something it's not. Historically, fair use has been a defense against an accusation of infringement judged on a case-by-case basis. Judges are not supposed to make general rules about behavior when considering fair use, and they rarely do, although there have been a couple of notable exceptions. In the Betamax case, for example, the Supreme Court said that, in general, a viewer taping Johnny Carson to watch the next day is fair use. With the books program, Google is essentially asking for a general rule that corporations be allowed to do massive, industrial-scale scanning for a for-profit venture as long as the product's presentation to the end-user passes fair use muster. I think that's a shaky argument. But my real, fundamental issue is that this was always going to be a flash point, and there was way too much at stake.
Say, Google had decided to fight in court, rather than settle. And say it won before the Supreme Court. Congress was never going to let them just win. Congress would have listened to the major content providers, and it would have intervened in a way that would have restricted fair use. That in turn could have undermined some fundamental practices of the Web, like search. Remember, Web search is only legal because the Ninth Circuit ruled that making backup or cache copies of Web sites is permitted for the purpose of search. That's a really narrow rule that deals only with Web content; it's not a general rule that applies to content in the analogue world. But with books, Google reached from the digital world into the analogue world and said to publishers, "You now need to operate by the rules of the Web." In my opinion, that was a dangerous move.
Now, as a policy argument, there is something to be said for running copyright the way Google wants to run it. If we were testifying before Congress about such a change, I would be right up there with Google. But as it stands, that's not what Congress has said, and that's not what the courts have said.
Critics like UC Berkeley law professor Pam Samuelson have argued that the settlement is a corporate end run around the legislative process. Do you think that's valid?
[Rupert] Murdoch believes the world works one way. Google believes the world works another way. Murdoch is losing money. Google is making money. There is not much chance that under current conditions we will be able to design a system that supplies citizens with the knowledge they seek, consumers with the content they desire, and firms with the revenue they need. The intransigence and arrogance of the parties involved doesn't help.
Very much so, and that's exactly how Google likes to do things. Google figures that if it creates good products and they get popular, the courts and Congress will be less likely to undo them. But that is an arrogant, audacious perspective on the legal and legislative system, and it's fundamentally antidemocratic. Google should have to do things the old-fashioned way: hire lobbyists to bribe legislators to get their agenda passed [laughs]. Seriously, though, that's what every other company has to do. And as sick as it sounds, that's the way the game is played. If Congress thinks it is a bad idea to permit a digital library like this, then we fight harder to convince them why it is a good idea, and we make those arguments in public. The Google Book Settlement was not created by public argument, and we now have this absurd situation where major information policy is being made via a class action settlement between and among major corporations. This is not how it is supposed to work, and judge Denny Chin is now in the unfortunate, delicate situation of having to decide some very big questions about the future of copyright, the future of ideas, the future of publishing and libraries.
You note how perpetually budget-challenged libraries and universities were wooed to participate in the project, but now might feel a bit taken advantage of. Do you think libraries were used by Google?
Oh, definitely. Libraries got used, universities got used. I think the scanning program is one of the biggest examples of corporate welfare from universities in history. Universities collectively spent millions, billions of dollars on their collections, on metadata, and then they just gave it to Google for a profit-making venture. It's astounding. And librarians have put in so many labor hours doing Google's work that it actually ended up being really expensive for a lot of them. Libraries and universities looked at their short-term needs, instead of the long-term public interest, and so what we will end up with is a platform that is not as free and open as we might have hoped, and many librarians are heartbroken about this. It's just a huge missed opportunity.
But Michigan librarian Paul Courant, for example, has argued passionately that Google's books project offers great public benefits, making millions of long-lost books discoverable and accessible, work libraries could never have done so expeditiously. Doesn't he have a point?
I'm sympathetic to the expediency argument, but I'm also impatient with it. Courant's argument is based on two assumptions that I take issue with. First is the assumption that the cost to university libraries would be low. We know now that the cost to libraries has actually been significant, and the benefit has been overstated. We also know now that Google wants to be a bookstore, not a library.
Second, the premise that no one else was ever going to do this is an argument by fiat, a classic fallacy. If we, the people of the world, the librarians of the world, the scholars of the world, the publishers of the world, decide that we should have a universal digital library, then let's write a plan, change the laws, raise money, and do it right. If we're going to create this with public resources, let's do it in the public interest, not corporate interest. There's nothing wrong with Google pursuing a books project, of course, and, yes, there are benefits. But we have to understand that what Google has created is first and foremost for Google, and I think a lot of people have fooled themselves about that.
On another front, Google recently launched its commercial e-book venture with publishers. Any thoughts on what Google might do for the e-book market?
Google has a reputation for treating its business partners very well, and for that reason I think publishers should be enthusiastic about that. Google is a well-run and straightforward business—we only get into trouble when we forget that it's a business.
In general, cutting e-book distribution deals with Google is going to be a much more fruitful and pleasant experience for publishers than dealing with Amazon. In fact, I think the most important thing publishers have already learned about Google is that it is not Amazon! I know no publisher will criticize Amazon on the record, but I'll do it. Amazon wants to fix prices. Amazon wants to tether valuable content to its devices and software platforms and lock it in. Publishers are right to resist that, and to be suspicious of Amazon having that much power. I think a lot of people in the Web world have been unfairly critical of publishers for wanting to set their own prices, often because they assume that choosing digital distribution over paper cuts out most of the costs associated with books. But that's just not true. I've been frustrated by how willfully ignorant so many cyber- journalists are about the economics of book publishing. Pricing is essential for publishers, and we should never want any one company to have so much power over such an essential element of our information and cultural ecosystem.
| Trust and Control |
Questions of trust and control are not merely matters of abstract speculation. The core practices of Google—the massive accumulation of data on consumer and citizen preferences, the ability to accurately and precisely target small advertisements for small services for a small fee billions of times per day, and the appearance of offering access to information for no monetary cost—could soon be dominant modes of information commerce. Google has already forced big media companies and mobile-phone services to alter their expectations and services. Soon other companies will no doubt try to mimic Google's style, philosophy, and moves.
Your last chapter unveils an ambitious blueprint for a truly open digital library, a "Human Knowledge Project," which, you admit is a dream. Are you secretly hoping that Bill Gates or George Soros will read that chapter and cut you a check?
Honestly, I kind of am. But if we don't want it, let's not do it—that's my first position. I happen to think a global digital library that provides equal access to people around the world is a worthwhile goal. We have the tools to do it. We have the technologies to do it. That's not even a question. So I wrote that chapter as a kind of test, a test of our willingness to put our shoulders into something that right now we only run our mouths about. We have heard people articulate this dream about how Google was going to unleash all this freedom and knowledge. Well, if that's a dream that serious people have, then let's do more that write and talk about it. If we think it's a good idea, then let's campaign for it. Let's convince governments to put up a little bit of money for it. I don't think I'm being naïvely optimistic.