The Googlization of Everything

To search for something on the Web using Google is not unlike confessing your desires to a mysterious power. — Siva Vaidhyanathan

In one of my national democratic youth activist friends online conversations with Simsimi, the free artificial intelligence conversation program, they were flattered to hear positive responses about the mass organizations of which they were active members.

When they asked about a pseudo-progressive group, my friends were surprised to read a very militant reply disparaging the said party. I tried asking Simsimi about the same group on a separate occasion and was astonished to see the same kind of response: “oportunista’t repormista.”

Simsimi, seemingly all-knowing with his capacity to answer in all languages and bring out replies closely mirroring our own opinions or alternatively poking fun at us, seems to stand-in for the kind of domination Google exercises over our lives.

Simsimi has become the personification of Google as described in Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry).

One of the worrying aspects of Google that the book describes is its tendency to tailor-fit its search engine to “fit your known locality, interests, obsessions, fetishes, and points of view” in order to give the user the “right” results faster.

It is indeed more efficient. However, this also means that “Your Web search experience will reinforce whatever affiliations, interests, opinions, and biases you already possess. And it is fraught, Vaidhyanathan warns, with even more insidious implications:

As of late 2009, Google Maps users in China saw the area marked as part of Tibet; those in India still saw it designated as part of India. Google Maps applied the same treatment to disputed areas of the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, which have majority Muslim populations and have been claimed by Pakistan since the two nations were divided in 1947.

By organizing and putting together vast amounts of knowledge – from archives, libraries, government records, company inventories, both offline and online markets, to the personal whereabouts of netizens, we seem to be seeing the Googlization of “everything.”

Google has become the dominant way to navigate the web. But by using Google we are not only searching for things on the Internet, we are also giving away markers that allow Google to record information about us.

Its services’ pervasiveness, Vaidhyanathan observes, has made it possible for Google to shape us: “we are not Google’s customers: we are its product. We—our fancies, fetishes, predilections, and preferences—are what Google sells to advertisers.”

Its biases (valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of presentation) are built into its algorithms. And those biases affect how we value things, perceive things, and navigate the worlds of culture and ideas. In other words, we are folding the interface and structures of Google into our very perceptions. Does anything (or anyone) matter if it (or she) does not show up on the first page of a Google search? Here are some of the big questions facing us in the coming years: Who—if not Google—will control, judge, rank, filter, and deliver to us essential information?

We use Google for free. In return, we generate voluminous dossiers for Google’s consumer profiling which is actually its core business. Through Google, especially through its adjunct services Google Maps, the world has become one big object for surveillance. And we are all too happy surrendering ourselves to this new Big Brother’s whims.

One of the myths used counteract these fears of “infrastructural imperialism” is the mantra that the dissemination of technology automatically tends towards democratization, popular participation, and people empowerment by dispersing communicative methods to individuals.

Citing the mass upsurge that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the more recent popular uprisings in the Middle East and the rest of the world which featured massive use of new technologies, dot com corporations of course ride on this myth in order to cash in. But as Vaidhyanathan points out:

The introduction of a powerful and efficient mode of communication such as the fax machine or the Internet can amplify or accelerate a movement, provided that the movement already has form, support, substance, and momentum. Technologies are far from neutral, but neither do they inherently support either freedom or oppression. The same technologies, as we have already seen, can be used both to monitor and oppress a group of people and to connect them in powerful ways.

As Mao reminds us, while external causes (new communication techniques) are condition of change, it is the internal causes (contradictions between social forces) that are ultimately the basis of change, with the external causes becoming operative through the internal causes.

Another of the most enduring myths about the present conditions of the world is the so-called “post-industrial” turn and the emergence of “immaterial labor” as supposedly embodied by the meteoric rise of the “virtual economy” amidst the slump in the real productive economy.

Google has always promoted itself as an example of how any small but innovative company with little capital can make it big by doing business on the Internet. This claim, Vaidhyanathan refutes, is easily belied by the reality that Internet companies are not all “weightless and virtual.”

It might be valid if Google were merely a collection of smart people and elegant computer code. Instead, Google is also a monumental collection of physical sites such as research labs, server farms, data networks, and sales offices. Replicating the vastness of Google’s processing power and server space is unimaginable for any technology company except Microsoft.

This concentration of real material capital in Google, Vaidhyanathan continues, is the secret behind its services’ maximizing of the “network effect”: “The more users it attracts, the more value each user derives from using it, and thus the more users it continues to attract.”

Knowledge, as accumulated in the Internet and in books (as uploaded online through Google Books), has become hostage to Google’s interests: “the company’s role as mediator, filter, and editor of culture and information grows even stronger.”

There was a time when the ultimate proof of existence is our seeing something with our own two eyes. Now “It seems that if a town—or anyone or anything—can’t be found with Google, it might as well not exist.”

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