Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) paints a brilliant, compelling, and convincing portrait of the Big Search Engine That Could. Like the steam engine of the industrial fairy tale that got up the big hill against odds (“I think I can, I think I can”), Google began in 1996 as a doctoral research project by two Stanford students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and in 2011 runs over a million servers in data servers chugging away the world over. Every year, Google’s empire changes. It hasn’t just made it up the mountain but is presently king of the Internet mountain. Yet as Vaidhyanathan warns in the Preface to The Googlization of Everything, “The Google of 2021 will not resemble the Google of 2001–or even of 2011.”
So why should we worry? Because, Vaidhyanathan argues, a company that currently relies on fostering and encouraging Web use for its revenue could easily turn into one that “privileges consumption over exploration, shopping over learning, and distracting over disturbing.” Given a talk I heard recently by a Google exec worrying about the fate of Google in a mobile world where Apple had cornered all aspects of the market (from production to distribution and all the devices and pipes and wires in between), that well could happen. The once renegade and chaotic and open web could become one gigantic Home Shopping Channel with Google directing our choices.
Given that possibility, we all need to read The Googlization of Everything. Vaidhyanathan returns to the history of Google which is to say the history of the commercialization of the Web. If we date the conventional moment of commercialization as somewhere around 1994, Google was there quite close to the start. If not exactly and precisely a monopoly, Google certain ruled, from the beginning, like it was entitled to own the empire. And we know what happens with those who feel entitled to be imperial: “Like Caesar,” Vaidhyanathan quips, “Google’s appeal is almost divine. Because we focus so much on the miracles of Google, we are too often blind to the ways in which Google exerts control over its domain.”
I am particularly interested in Vaidhyanathan’s discussion of regulation. As a proponent of the “open web,” I regret that the “open” shape changes every day (it is now less “open” in the sense of the vast web than of a slender bottle neck into a gigantic cavern). Vaidhyanathan does a fine job explaining Google’s role in that closing down and even helps us understand what is very difficult to understand: how we could imagine a better search engine that would put us in less of a strangle-hold of the circular “page rankings” where top rankings are achieved by top rankers ranking. He notes how page rankings privilege the digital over the analog, and, again, hold much potential for commercial exploitation.
Vaidhyanathan also gives us the best account everywhere of the Google Books project–and why we should worry. “The Google Books project is one of the most revolutionary information policy changes in a century or more. If approved, it would alter how we think about copyright, culture, books, history, access, and libraries. Yet the public has had no say in how it will be constructed and urn. No public policymaking body oversaw its creation. No legislature considered thenotion of creating what amounts to a compulsory-license system (through which the copyright holder is never asked beforehand if she agrees t the copying; instead the copier may assume the right to copy) to allow a company to scan copyrighted books by the millions.” Remember Vaidhyanathan’s evocation of Google as the Caesar of the Internet? Now remember the Biblical injunction: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” Is it a good thing that every book in the world belongs to Caesar? And a good thing for whom?
I’m not going to give the answers here to these provocative questions because this is a book that should be read, not just reviewed. The punchline isn’t the point so much as it is the starting place for real, serious intellectual thinking. Every day could be a new epilogue to The Googlization of Everything, because the process continues to unfold in epic fashion at epic scale. What this book helps us all to do is to think about what the changes are, what they mean, and how we can cope with them.
Where The Googlization of Everything intersects nicely with my own book (coming out this August), Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Ways We Live, Work, and Learn, is that he gives us the grounds for assessing the history and meaning of the single most important method for the redistribution of goods, services, and knowledge in our time. I argue that virtually all of the institutions of what we now think of as “work” and “school” have been developed to support the Taylorized, industrial method of creating and distributing goods, services, and knowledge.
I’ve only met Siva once, in passing, coming in and out of revolving doors at an American Studies Association meeting, but I’ve followed his work avidly and with admiration. This week, his class, “Introduction to Digital Media” will meet, via Skype, with my class “Twenty-First Century Literacies.” We’re also looking forward to being on a panel together at ASA in October. But even before then, I would say that the ways our two books intersect is that Now You See It proposes institutional and personal strategies for dealing with the googlization of everything. The current worlds of work and school are inheritances; they evolved as ways of dealing with the 20th century’s Taylorization of everything. There is no better analysis than Siva Vaidhyanathan’s of why we should worry about the Googlization of everything. I’m proposing productive ways to transform our 21st century worries into an impetus for change, for systematic rethinking of how we live, work, and learn in what, as Siva Vaidhyanathan so eloquently and persuasively argues, is the Empire of Google.