Thoughts About Googlization
Last week 2 NRC journalist (Ernst-Jan Pfauth and Peter Teffer) tried to live and work without using any Google services for a week and wrote a blog about it. The effort turned out to be quite hard, as Google is ubiquitously present on the web. Not only a number of major services on the web such as Google search, Gmail, and YouTube are owned by Google, many others are ‘powered’ by Google and many more are payed using Google’s advertising products. Here are some relevant stats about this. This triggers the question whether this is a bad thing and to no surprise there are critics and theorists that feel strongly about this issue. In this context NRC published an interview with Geert Lovink, lector Internet Culture. Lovink argues against Googlization, the ever increaing growht of Google, which Lovink classifies as a cynical company suffering from data obesitas. Wach this Hungry Beast movie to get into his point of view. So I learned a new word ‘Googlization’, but are things really that bad? I felt confused and had a strong need to declutter my mind, by taking apart all the arguments made and by evaluating them separately. Here is my top 5 list.
1 Google has, or is working towards a monopoly position; Microsoft alike. This is always a bad thing.
Monopoly or not, the virtual empire of Google is huge, and Google is ubiquitous on the web. But is it a bad thing? I can dream up two related economical reasons (I will discuss other types of reasoning under different points) to be against monopoly positions of companies. First: monopolies inhibit innovation, because there is no incentive to innovate when there are no competitors to keep you sharp. Second: monopolies tends to the keep costs of products unnaturally high because in competitive markets there is tendency for services to become commoditized, incentive to offer sharp prizing. However Google is one of the most innovative companies I know, and most of Google’s services are free of charge (!). One could argue that Google, as competition is becoming weaker, will change – simply because the need to offer free service and to innovate decreases. I have not seen that yet, and as long as Google stays true to its societal mission (to make all information in the world available and accessible for all) rather than just its economical mission I believe it will remain a innovative force in the web landscape.
2 Google has gained the power to decide what information we see and what information we do not see. It is never a good idea to put such power in the hands of just one company.
To me, this comes across as a valid argument, and a good reason to wish for a good competitor; especially for search. But I do not believe Google has an information monopoly. Google may be dominant, possibly superior to other engines but not outstanding in the sense that without Google good search is impossible. If Google owns the information we find, it maintains this monopoly by the grace of public trust in its ‘honest’, ‘non political’ treatment of the information it provides. As long as people communicate to each other trough other means than Googled information, the company cannot easily misuse its information ownership. However a more fundamental variant needs to be discussed (point 4).
3 Google has changed the way we think. It makes us less focused, less reflective, less smart.
First, I believe there is a long standing trend of the information being shared (on the web) to become less reflective, more personal, closer to the here and now, in smaller chunks and closer to everyday life – books, webpage’s, blogs, micro blogging, life streaming. I guess the availability of all this information is partly due to (or thanks to) Google. I do not consider this trend a development that shows a fundamental shift in how we think, but maybe a shift in with whom we are sharing.
Nevertheless there are shifts in how we handle information that are very hard get a grip on. For example: does the googleability of information (the fact that we can trust any information is readily and immediately available for us) harm our ability to remember information that is vital to our thinking (you need knowledge to think, but in my experience telephone numbers are not the best building blocks for thought)? Does the constant stream of short ‘news clips’ harm our ability to focus on anything longer than this headline or to be with our heads in the (computing) cloud (as Dave Pell ‘confesses’)? Does availability of factual, encyclopedic information in Wikipedia, makes us less capable to see through information that is presented from (subjective) perspective? Do micro-blogging tools cost our economy more, or do they increase our productivity? These are hard questions to answer, but to me there seems to be hardly any reason to consider these changes to be bad by default. We must not treat each change in the ways people handle information as if it is a danger to public (cognitive) health. We do not need to treat Google as a virtual drug, warranting to be placed under strong regulation by the government. If information availability harms the people’s abilities to think, they will learn to work around it.
4 Pagerank can be seen as a computer algorithm that decides for us what is relevant and what not. This is not up to a computer algorithm.
This is quite a theoretical argument, but in a way I do take more seriously than the first three points. Before I delve into the theoretical difficulties, let me be clear that I do not consider Pagerank as a ‘computer algorithm deciding for us’ in the narrow sense of the word. Pagerank is a crowd sourcing technology: it ‘calculates’ for us what is relevant , based on hyperlinks between websites; made by humans. Moreover, the algorithm is trained based on feedback on what information users actually look at after reviewing Google’s suggestions. Finally, since users make their final decision about what is relevant based on a selected set of suggestion the relevance decision is at least shared between the algorithm and the user. So there is quite a bit of ‘human’ in the Pagerank algorithm. Nevertheless, at the end of the day it is a slim set of stochastic rules that decides for us what is relevant, based on the ‘current state of affairs’. The difficulty with this is that this cannot be ‘neutral’, a set of rules like this has a political profile (Langdon Winner would say it has ’political power’). In a way Google offers information trough a cold computational form of radical democracy. Maybe Google could be more explicit about what the values are behind their information selection technology. In normal words which information is favored and why is this information considered more important? Many newspapers have publicly available information codes and are willing to discuss the concrete choices that are a result of that, this would be a good policy for Google too. The social corporate responsibility slogan ‘Don’t be Evil’ remains fairly vague.
5 Google acts like ‘big brother’. It knows too much about us, and is using this information in a cynically economic way.
I have made this point in my previous Google post. I do not worry about Google storing my browsing behavior as long the company uses it to deliver me better service. Because of this service Google and me have a trust relationship. I do care if Google uses the information about me to provide better service to a advertisers with whom a have not such a trust relationship; I consider that an invasion of my privacy. The difficulty that most of the free services that I love so much including Googles own services are paid this way. I do not have a choice to use Google while not being exposed to personalized advertisements. My only choice is to neglect those advertisements. I feel there is a strong need for non advertisement based payment models for the web that do keep the quick adaptation of new services thriving. And no, I did not yet consider how to solve that problem. Maybe I will give it a try in my post ‘the end of advertising (on the web) that is due whenever I found the inspiration to write it.
On a practical level, Google does me little harm, and much good. On a more fundamental level I see good reasons to be concerned about the googleization of society. In particular I would argue for an ‘information priority code of conduct’, publicly available and stated in clear language and I would like Google to offer me a choice not to support (some of) it’s advertisers while maintaining its excellent service.
Filed under: (re)thinking media, discussion | 4 Comments
Tags: Geert Lovink, Google, Googlization, Langdon Winner, Monopoly, Pagerank, Search, Society of the Query