Following last week’s Spark CBC podcast interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the provocative new book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), I’ve become much more cognizant of my growing reliance on Google and its ubiquitous digital wares. It’s an intriguing notion, our almost universal embrace of Google has given rise to significant technological dependencies, many of which extend beyond Google’s core search-engine service. Google it seems, apart from indexing the world’s vast information, increasingly forms the underlying structure powering every little nook and cranny of the Web and our inextricably cloud-connected lives. Whether this is good or bad is up for debate.
Like many people, I frequently use Chrome to browse the Web and Google Maps when I’m looking for directions, on daily if not hourly basis. There’s also Google Images, Google Docs, Gmail, Google Translation, Google Reader, Picasa, and a growing list of apps and services that I can’t seem to fathom living without. In fact many of these services have quickly entered the global nomenclature of popular Internet-gadget-app-speak, second only to Apple’s über mindshare grabbing iEverything. But wait, there’s more. Google has also been dabbling in book scanning, mobile smart phones and computer operating systems among numerous other well-funded endeavours. Perhaps therein lies the problem. This rampant Googlization of digital technologies, media, culture, and so on… —sounds sinister doesn’t it? Our solace in Google-powered everything needs a wake up call. Our growing complacency centered around using Google services, but not competitor offerings—let’s call this laziness Gooplacency—just feels wrong. Our inclination towards the Google ecosystem in some ways threatens our ability to critically evaluate information because our sources, in theory, are always filtered and originate from the same point. I imagine the thought of cross referencing our Google search results with another search-engine is a laughable proposition to some people. Who really has the time? In the Google-filtered cloud everything just seems easier, so why bother changing our habits? But what are Google’s algorithms not showing us? Are we arbitrarily censoring ourselves by restricting (and trusting) our information almost exclusively to Google-based sources?
While the prevailing attitude may be that Google acts virtuously with our best interests at heart, such centralized power in the hands of one corporation is at odds with the idea the Web should be a level technological playing field. But level the Web is not.
A healthy Web, ideally speaking, is an open and diverse environment with no single entity, corporate or otherwise, exerting a disproportionate level of influence. This might sound utopian, perhaps a little naive, considering the current distribution of power and influence governing the commercial side of cyberspace. But at present the hegemony over online content skews heavily in favor of Google-powered wares. But who is really worried?
Within the last decade Google’s core Web search engine-service has effectively become the de-facto standard by which we navigate the Web. Spend any reasonable length of time online and you may have no doubt briefly entertained one of the popular Google search alternatives that have periodically emerged on the scene. I’ve tried Clusty (now Yippy), Dogpile, and most recently Bing. But none of these initially promising search offerings ever seem to match up to the high expectations established by Google’s brilliant query results.
Indeed, Google has quite literally become the search default and it seems there’s not a progressively minded government agency or brash start-up entrepreneur in sight able to challenge the sheer breadth and technological dominance Google has amassed.
Although, it appears Google’s mission to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful has come under increasing scrutiny of late. We should pay attention to the work of people like Geert Lovink with the courage to shed critical light on Google’s growing influence over our lives. While most of us seem almost blindly accepting of everything Google does or creates exists in the best interests of the general public, Geert Lovink on the other hand views Google’s search result methodology (the algorithms) as seriously flawed. Essentially the criticism that Google’s search rankings are compiled based on popularity, not necessarily truth, forms a compelling argument for a more informational, as opposed to socially, centric Web. In other words, the world’s information shouldn’t be compartmentalized as though it were a popularity contest.
Even more disturbing, the stark revelation that Google’s rise to global tech dominance is reminiscent of the monopoly Microsoft had on software throughout the 90s.
Geert Lovink writes:
How did so many people end up being that dependent on a single search engine? Why are we repeating the Microsoft saga once again? It seems boring to complain about a monopoly in the making when average Internet users have such a multitude of tools at their disposal to distribute power.
Geert goes on to caution that we should be more aware of Google’s activities and apparent unrestrained reach as more and more of the digital products and services we rely upon fall under the so-called Google corporate umbrella:
Google has expanded so fast, and in such a wide variety of fields, that there is virtually no critic, academic or business journalist who has been able to keep up with the scope and speed with which Google developed in recent years. New applications and services pile up like unwanted Christmas presents.
I would gather though, your average Netizen does not view Google as a significant threat to an open, democratic Web. Nor would they feel that exclusive use of Google services undermines information diversity.
Still, as Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it, opting out or switching away from Google services [arguably] degrades one’s ability to use the Web. Wow, what a sad state of affairs. In this sense we have engendered a generation of Googlers who’s over-reliance on Google wares, as a cognitive crutch of sorts, impede our capacity for critical thinking. After all, if we’re unwilling to explore beyond Google’s first page of search results or entertain competing services—search-engines or otherwise—where does that ultimately leave us?