Humanities on the Edge Book Review: Siva Vaidhyanathan
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
I remember not too long ago when I was using a newly acquired iPad to find a recipe that I could glance at in the kitchen. Having found it on my desktop prior, I typed in the same list of ingredients in order to rediscover it and reap the benefits of my new mobile device. To my surprise, the search I made on my desktop instantly appeared on my iPad – purple instead of blue – down to the misspelling of “peppert” I had made earlier in fervor. It was a novel experience for me because I had always assumed my browser and search history was stored on a local device. But now it was following me. It took me a minute to realize that this was happening because I was signed in to Gmail on both devices and, as a result, Google was tailoring my searching experience for me; collecting and recalling what I am interested in, what I have searched for, and countless variables that would create a shadow of what it considered to be my digital self. It was convenient, yes, but what are the further implications of this kind of tracking? And what happens when the company responsible is afforded greater power beyond search results?
These kinds of questions are further explored in Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) – a book which strives to be less of a condemnation of the company than a structured warning against both its inclusion in multiple areas of life as well as the blind and reckless faith that most of us place in its present and future endeavors. Vaidhyanathan suggests that this googlization – a “permea[tion of] our culture” – influences literally every part of our life, including “us,” “the world,” and “knowledge” (2). His argument follows this trajectory closely, beginning with the rise of Google as a search engine, investigating its users and the interaction between Google and state governments internationally, and finally interrogating the Google Books project and the relationship to the quest for information.
Along the way, Vaidhyanathan carefully walks a fine line between acknowledging the company’s positive capabilities and stressing the need to slow down; to question whether we as a global people want to invest so much importance in a business that is still so young. The most successful wording of these capabilities is “soft power” (50), a term that highlights both the impact that Google wields as well as its attempts to downplay both the company’s massive appeal and its precarious relationship with the law. Throughout the work, copyright infringement, local policies and laws of international governments and their people, and questionable ethical practices are constantly and deftly juxtaposed with the company’s unofficial motto “Don’t be evil.” All this is an attempt to show that Google is first and foremost a business which ultimately seeks to sell advertising in the most efficient way.
This is epitomized in the explanation of Google’s PageRank algorithm. Back when the Web was a tangled mess of pages that required guidance to navigate, Google ascended to the top with brilliant code that would relatively weight pages based on links and recommendations (21). By literally scanning and caching pages of websites, PageRank attempts to weigh hyperlinks and clicks in order to display query results as a page that is determined communally and, ideally, democratically (61). The more relevant and popular a site is, the higher up on the page it appears in the results, and traffic increases for the top sites displayed. “Soft” and elegant as it may be, the algorithm also presents more insidious outcomes. Copyright becomes an issue with scanned sites such as newspaper outlets, and results are influenced by both your location and Google itself in order to better tailor the search results for the user. And that is exactly the problem. Despite Google’s ingenuity, processing power, or apparent benevolence, their history suggests the consistent goal of improving AdWords, which automatically auctions off advertising opportunities to the highest bidder (26). Given such a history, Vaidhyanathan asks, do we really want this company to be so invested in our current lives and so responsible for where the company directs us?
In terms of our current situation, Vaidhyanathan's analysis of privacy is one of the most intriguing sections of the book. He begins by outlining Google’s privacy policies, which are vague and constantly in flux. By default, Google claims exceptional control over the information it gathers, from IP addresses to search histories, and part of the success is assuming users will not change those defaults. After all, “The more Google knows about us, the more effective its advertising services can be” (83). So if Google is monitoring and collecting our recipe searches (which will be stored server side and later recalled in an attempt to sell me kitchen knives, I suppose), how do we respond? In contrast to the Panopticon – the tower of a prison that could see all the inmates without a returned gaze so that prisoners must assume they are being watched at all times – employed by Jeremy Bentham (and later expanded upon by Michel Foucault), Vaidhyanathan suggests Google’s surveillance is a “cryptopticon.” The key difference is that “Unlike Bentham’s prisoners, we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled – we simply know that we are.” Furthermore, “We don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance,” Vaidhyanathan suggests. “Instead, we don’t seem to care” (112). While this notion of covert or unknown degrees of surveillance seems convincing given the differences in kind that this type of surveillance creates, Vaidhyanathan has little faith in the users to react to these changes.
This mode of thinking mirrors the kind of the surveillance and the warnings supplied by whistleblower Edward Snowden, who listed this kind of apathy as his greatest fear following the leaked surveillance documents in 2013. The fact that this conversation is relevant is testament to the importance that Vaidhyanathan places on the regulation of Google’s different programs (46). Gmail offers an intuitive email service, Street View offers comprehensive pictures of locations (and often controversial pictures of people and their homes as well), Google Books offers snippets of copyrighted material, and acquisitions like YouTube and Blogger allow user submissions through different media. How do you regulate all of these services at once? And if surveillance occurs to an unknown degree, how do you separate state surveillance from that of an entity that has become so ubiquitous in our lives? While one is a company and one is a government, the distinction is not as clear in regards to access to information. Following the release of The Googlization of Everything, this conversation has become increasingly muddied, and the encryption offered on Google’s end more precarious than is outlined in the book. At a certain point, does it even make a difference how we respond to one or the other?
It is hard to say, but Vaidhyanathan seems to underestimate the user either way. By suggesting that “we don’t seem to care,” he is painting broad strokes of apathy across a large population. In a recent TED talk entitled "Why Privacy Matters," Glen Greenwald addressed this very question and the similar sentiment of, “well I don’t do anything bad, so why do I have to worry?” Greenwald’s reply is the following:
"Here's my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you're doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you're not a bad person, if you're doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide."
Greenwald then jokes that no one has taken him up on the offer, but the point is that it may not be that people “don’t care,” but instead that they are not aware of the opportunities afforded to certain entities by having this information simply available. Vaidhyanathan suggests that users still use services like Facebook or Gmail in spite of privacy concerns, but the kind of privacy that Greenwald suggests seems to carry a more immediate and relatable message. Even more recently than the TED talk, the apathy of civilians has been questioned by Snowden himself, suggesting that as a people we are beginning to understand the severity of this relationship to our privacy and secure information. Still, Vaidhyanathan's other “crytopticon” remark remains paramount; it may be exactly because we do not know how much information is being collected (i.e. the “ways in which we are being watched”) that we cannot fathom possible negative outcomes or realize a type of reaction to the collection process.
The culmination of the study – and indeed where Vaidhyanathan makes his most controversial claims – is the section regarding Google Books and “The Googlization of Knowledge.” Here Vaidhyanathan takes the preceding account of the current relationship to Google and extends these norms into the future in order to question the result for books, libraries, and the communal search for knowledge. The focus is of course on the Authors Guild v. Google case, which revolved around the use of snippets of scanned books still under copyright. The case hinged on a definition of fair use and whether or not Google’s actions are in the public interest. Again, Vaidhyanathan questions whether Google should be chosen for this job despite its computational power, suggesting this will lead to the privatization of books through a single entity as opposed to an educational community: “We might never be willing to design and fund high-quality, durable, publicly run, noncommercial services with the mission of spreading knowledge rather than selling books or placing advertisements” (154). At the time of writing the book in 2010, the case still had not been decided, allowing Vaidhyanathan to play out the potential outcomes in the rest of the chapter.
Vaidhyanathan's negative stance toward the Google Books project is fascinating, especially because I have witnessed the other side of the argument first hand. Sitting in a computational text analysis class in 2013, I recall my professor striding in one morning, scrawling the date on the whiteboard and triumphantly declaring “Today is the day the courts defined fair use!” The decision was in favor of Google, and as we began talking about the possibilities for text mining a corpus of 20th century texts – a task that is impaired by copyright laws that protect published works after 1923 – nowhere in the discussion did we stop to think about whether Google was the right choice for the job. Someone was doing it and that is all that mattered. Looking back, this is precisely the approach that Vaidhyanathan claims is dangerous. While the “soft power” of Google would benevolently lay open monumental volumes of the written word, servers in the background would salivate at the information they could consume towards better language or lexical advantages. Better advertising. More money.
In that regard, I wonder how Vaidhyanathan would approach the digital library HathiTrust. Started in 2008, HathiTrust is a collection of digital texts contributed from universitiy libraries. Texts are ingested through Google books, the Internet Archive, and in-house digitization processes at individual universities. HathiTrust is continuously growing and has been used in large scale text analysis projects before (and it too had a case brought against it by the Author Guild that went in favor of HathiTrust in 2012, also citing fair use). From what I know of the project, it seems to foster Vaidhyanathan's goal – that instead of Google and their Books project, “libraries should pool their efforts and resources to accomplish such massive digitization and access projects themselves” (169). Or at the very least, it could serve as a template or building block towards Vaidhyanathan's concluding sentiment of the book, The Human Knowledge Project.The Human Knowledge Project would be a long term, collaborative enterprise to work through the difficulties of collecting the world's library resources and connecting academics, professionals, and students.
The project, idealistic as it may sound, would painstakingly work through the struggles created by such a large endeavor. In this way, Vaidhyanathan grounds the project in reality, acknowledging that even “private interests such as Google” should be encouraged to participate in the coordination (209). Moves like this throughout the book suggest the genuine approach of Vaidhyanathan, who understands the power that entities like Google could contribute towards the public’s best interest. Still, with an endeavor as grand and important as this, it is hard to argue that it should be vested in a company whose future is unknown at best; continuously devoted to capital and advertising at worst. These closing sentiments remind the reader of the need to avoid a sort of reckless acquiescence that accepts the benefits with no regard for future drawbacks, especially when they impact not the convenience of recipe-finding, but how the world accesses the collectivized history of its knowledge.