In less than 10 years since the search engine first appeared and spread through word of mouth, Google.com has radically altered the rules of the game for at least six major industries: Advertising, software applications, geographic services, e-mail, publishing, and Web commerce itself. The company did this through a remarkable confluence of intellectual hubris and technical prowess.
But now, as we face the impending Googlization of everything, we should ask some hard questions about how Google is not only “creatively destroying” established players in various markets, but is also altering the very ways we see our world and ourselves.
If Google becomes the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it will have remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases are built into its algorithms. It knows more about us every day. We know almost nothing about it.
The company itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical questions in its way: they are engineers. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system yet to be fixed or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or flat plane of glass. It is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And more importantly, as a publicly traded company, must act in its own short-term interest despite its altruistic proclamations.
Google has utterly infiltrated our culture. It is a ubiquitous brand, used as a noun and a verb everywhere from adolescent conversations to scripts for Sex and the City. Its stock price soared in value after its initial offering in 2004, although it has eroded by nearly 30 percent from its peak in the early months of 2006. Its revenue has more than doubled to $3 billion per year since the offering. Since the initial public offering Google has aggressively acquired other firms like the video-hosting site YouTube and the Internet advertising company DoubleClick. The core service of Google.com – its Web search engine – handles more than 50 percent of the Web search business in the United States and is growing at an impressive rate.
To preserve its status as the elite, venerated, and fast-moving technology company of the future, Google must do two things. It must continue to convince the world that it is the anti-Microsoft. And it must find more things to index and expose to the world.
Clearly, Google has to protect its brand by being seen as the good guy. And so far it has. The damage Google has done to the world is largely invisible. Google got big by keeping ads small. It carefully avoided pinching our marketing-saturated nervous systems and offered illusions of objectivity, precision, comprehensiveness, and democracy. After all, we are led to believe, Google search results are determined by peer-review, by us, not by an editorial team of geeks. So far, this method has worked wonderfully. Google is the hero of word-of-mouth marketing lore. Google guides me through the open Web, the space that Microsoft does not yet control. Yet Google must get bigger to satisfy its new stockholders. It must go new places and send its spiders crawling through un-indexed corners of human knowledge. Google’s mission statement includes the rather optimistic and humanistic phrase, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But Google co-founder Sergey Brin once offered a more ominous description of what Google might become: “The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God.”
Criticisms and concerns notwithstanding, Google is a terribly impressive company. It is perhaps the best company for which to work in the entire world. Its employees get ample rewards, intellectual freedom, and daily perks like free massages. It has reached remarkable heights of wealth and income without polluting a river or crushing a child’s arm in a machine. It does not cause cancer or bullet wounds. And its products are generally lauded, and more importantly, used, by both technology experts and the general public. This has led to a general perception that Google can do no wrong as well as no evil. The only loud critics of Google so far have been representatives of industries that Google is shaking up and frustrated human rights and privacy advocates. But that list is growing as the list of criticisms of Google mounts.
This leads to an important question about the company’s future and our future with it: As Google engulfs more essential features of our daily lives, can it remain angelic and independent?
This book will examine the quality and scope of the various ventures and experiments that Google has launched in the past five years and the effects this growth has had on particular communities of knowledge producers.
I am asking four key questions in my examination of Google:
• The phenomenological: How does using Google alter our perceptions of the world? Are its search results accurate and appropriate? How is Google changing its search functions through human intervention? Are Google’s search algorithms inherently conservative, i.e. do they favor the establish and thus limit the dynamism of the Web? How will Google affect what we know?
• The cultural and communal: How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of cultural practice and knowledge? How will Google affect what we make?
• The political: how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? Will advertising ever be the same? Has Google exposed many of the core tenets of advertising to be unfounded? Will Google kill the Superbowl ad? How will Google affect the ways that governments and organizations and corporations work?
• The global: how can Google’s technocratic libertarian ideology mesh with the conflicting notions of knowledge and propriety in distant far from Mountainview, California? Will Google’s relationship with the brutal government of the People’s Republic of China be its undoing? Will China change Google more than Google changes China? How will Google change the world?
The case study that best demonstrates how Google is rewriting the rules is its Book Search project. Since 2004 Google has been scanning and indexing millions of books from more than 20 university libraries. This program has generated two high-profile lawsuits from publishers and authors' groups. In addition, it has initiated many conversations and debates about the future of print, research, reading, and learning. Google Book Search is significant because it is the first large-scale and comprehensive effort to offer a text-search function for books. Much like the commonly used Google Web search service, Google Book Search would locate the specific string of text that the user placed in a text search box on the Google page. Google Book Search generates and ranks a list of books that contain the search terms.
Since its debut, Google has been the subject of much hyperbole. Legal scholars such as Lawrence Lessig claim that Google Book Search will radically democratize information for every American -- not just academics. Authors like Cory Doctorow applaud Google Book Search for offering them platforms to connect interested readers to particular texts and thus avoid the obscurity of small books getting lost in the mass market. And techno-libertarians like Kevin Kelly have celebrated the transformative nature of electronic texts, arguing that Google Book Search will allow users to connect disparate pieces of information as they see fit, thus evading the tyranny of the book cover and library catalog. This research project would test these claims and get far beyond the particulars of the Book Search program. It would consider the ways that Google’s video hosting services (YouTube and Google Video) are generating legislative and legal action from both content providers such as Viacom and broadband providers like AT&T. Generally, it would consider the ways that Google alters our sense of what is important and trustworthy.
One of the great attractions of Google is that it appears to offer so many powerful services for “free,” that is, for no remuneration. But there is a non-monetary transaction at work between Google and its users. We get Web search, email, Blogger platforms, and YouTube videos. Google gets our habits and predilections so it can more efficiently target advertisements to us. Google’s core business is consumer profiling. It keeps dossiers on all of us. Yet we have no idea how substantial or accurate these digital portraits are. This project will generate a better sense of what is at stake in this “gift” transaction and will generate new theories of corporate surveillance that get beyond the trite “Panopticon” model.
Possible Chapter Outline
Introduction: ".. Like the Mind of God": What Google Wants from Us
Chapter One: "To Organize All the World's Information": From Harnessing Web 1.0 to Generating Web 3.0
Chapter Two: What if Big Ads Don't Work: How Google AdSense has Upended the Industry
Chapter Three: "Don't Be Evil:" Being the Anti-Microsoft
Chapter Four: Is Google a Library?
Chapter Five: Putting the "You" in "YouTube": Challenging Big Media
Chapter Six: The Dossier: How Google Exploits Your Private Information
Chapter Seven: Global Google: How India, China, and Europe are trying to Rein in Google
Chapter Eight: Google Earth: Viewing the World through the Google Lens
Conclusion: A Public Utility?: What we can and should do about Google