Thursday, October 08, 2009

"I Never Know What They Mean by 'Better Results'"

It’s odd to realize how many authors of Google-related books I know. In the last year I’ve shared a meal with Jean-Noël Jeanneney, Alex Halavais, and my prep school classmate John Battelle. And I’ve felt particularly fortunate in being able to read sections of Virtualpolitik pal Siva Vaidhyanathan’s forthcoming book The Googlization of Everything before it goes to press. Those who have pre-ordered on Amazon won’t be disappointed, given the book’s lively style and scope of argument.

Vaidhyanathan was the first keynote speaker at this year’s Association of Internet Researchers conference, where he gave a talk about “The Googlization of Everything and the Human Knowledge Project.” He opened by commenting on the folly of trying to publish accurate books about the fast-changing Internet, because in the time of the gestation cycle of an academic book, which is comparable to the time to give birth to a baby elephant, “four to five claims” become “no longer true or relevant.” He even jokingly swore that from now on he would “only write about dead people and poor companies.”

He said that he saw his project as a response to being “unsatisfied with the public rhetoric of Google” and wary of “uncritical veneration,” particularly since “knowing things and connecting with people” can have profound effects, many of them unintended. He described how his interest in Google grew during the Google Book Search project, when he saw the communities of librarians that he had come to know from books like The Anarchist in the Library and his book on intellectual property Copyrights and Copywrongs abandon projects of “confederation” that would facilitate large-scale book digitization projects without considering the “cost to libraries and the souls of libraries.” He didn’t express surprise when Internet enthusiasts like Kevin Kelly waxed ecstatic about Google Book Search, but he was surprised when Lawrence Lessig compared Google’s project to the donation of Jefferson’s library to Congress, a comparison that I argue has its ironies in the Virtualpolitik book. He argued that advocates for copyright liberalization were at first so “immersed in battles” that they were “happy to have a hero.” He also nodded that Google’s seemingly pro-digital rights stands on opening up mobile platforms and network neutrality also earned them considerable good will in his intellectual community.

Before the AoIR audience, he was modest about the rigor of his methodology. He explained that he would “never be able to do a deep ethnography” because of his “minimal access” to Google personnel. He wryly described his method as “sit back in a chair and pontificate.” However, he did describe the process of gathering stories of how people first discovered Google from those like Waldo Jaquith and Clay Shirky. (I first began using Google in the late nineties when I was developing research exercises like this one with university librarians.)

He oriented his talk in the affective dimension of computing by looking at our “agape love not eros love” for Google, which is based on being able to find the Starbucks “with a few clicks” and our thrill with the “collapse of inconvenience.” He also argued that Nicholas Carr was wrong to ask “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” when the key question was really “How are we making Google smarter?” He noted how their proliferation of free services and free software like Google docs, which can apparently finally do footnotes, may buy our loyalty despite a lack of obvious relation since no one ever actually writes “a check to Google.” As he observed, “We are not Google’s customers. We are Google’s products.” Rather than spend time on each one of Googles products, services, and projects, he explained his three areas of inquiry as 1) “the Googlization of communication,” 2) “the Googlization of knowledge,” and 3) “the Googlization of us.” He asked, “How are we sold by Google?”

In understanding what he has called the theological character of the Google mystique, he pointed to the mission statement of the company: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” He also emphasized how Sergei Brin’s assertion that the perfect search engine would be “like the mind of God” indicates that Google often is presented and presents itself as “omnipresent,” “omniscient,” and “omnipotent.” However, he argues that this is not necessarily the benevolent deity presented by Google CEO Eric Schmidt to NPR listeners recently, who seems to direct a company that is magically without a profit motive, based on his professions to the media. "No company could exist without doing harm!" Vaidhyanathan asserts. The emphasis on "corporate responsibility" rather than "public responsibility" in our current set of cultural conversations indicates to him that these consumer choices are designed to "make us feel better" and mask the fact that "we have failed at politics for thirty years." Instead, he argues, we rely on marketing. (And I, as you can see in the sidebar of columns here, would agree.)

Like Fred Turner, Vaidhyanathan analyzes the language of Google exec Marissa Mayer in particular to understand how Google manages and hypes expectations. Vaidhyanathan looked at how she asserted that it is best to have a a simple interface mask complicated technology that engages 700-1000 computers with an everyday single search query. As Vaidhyanathan puts it, "Google execs say exactly what I want them to say" in plugging amusement, distraction, and entertainment and speaking of their users like children. In Google's pronouncements, he also finds what he calls the "hubris" of "technofundamentalism." At this point he allowed himself a theologicall disquisition about the Lucifer story and the fact that pride was the most serious of the Seven Deadly Sins. He even showed Google image results with "mind of God" and other deity-related searches.

Vaidhyanathan argues that we suffer from a "trust bias" and that surveys show that only 19% of Google users are skeptical of the veracity of the results and only 38% are aware of sponsored listings that they can pick out on the page.

Then he took a moment for a critique of Pragmatism. While acknowledging the philosophical contributions of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Richard Rorty to American thought, he argued that their emphasis on comfortable middles, consensus positions, and constant pressures for revising truth to accommodate a feedback loop of getting along validates verification not veracity. Their philosophical positions also underestimate the importance of power and bias in a given system. (This is also why I will often use the harsher word "Realpolitik" rather than "pragmatism" to explain why I try to engage with institutional ideologies.) This fandom for what is popular rewards the "geeky and webby and new and loud" rather than what might be genuinely significant.

He also argued that Google's rhetoric of the global is deceptive given how localized the search engine's results could be. A search for "God" in his home turf near the University of Virginia brings back information flavored by the Christian Protestantism that makes commercial sense for users to receive. As an example, he pointed to how has deleted results for "Jew Watch" under the search for "Jew" unlike its U.S. counterpart. Thus he points to the role of human intervention and the exercise of legal compliance and quality control in the quest for what the company calls "better results." "I never know what they mean by 'better results,'" Vaidhyanathan wryly observed.

In discussion with Ken Hillis afterwards, Vaidhyanathan picked up some aspects of his "seduction" argument and gently contested others as they both developed ways that this "universal index" of totality and monopoly might remind one of Plotinus more than William James. Given the NEH-funded project that I've been working on about the conflicting values expressed by government digital rhetoric, I found their argument about the opposition of "transparency" and "privacy" particularly interesting, since they argued that there is a significant difference between a "transparency of the personal" and a "transparency of the public."

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