As you might be aware, I’m not a huge fan of Google, or indeed, cloud-based apps in general. When I saw The Googlization of Everything (and why we should worry) in my local campus bookstore, I decided that it would be a good read on the spot. It was a good read, and here’s why.
I will admit upfront that I’m probably not the most unbiased person in the world when it comes to what is really a review of a review of Google. If you dislike bias, go watch the Pakistani cricket team instead.
I’d always been a bit hesistant to use Google products (or any cloud product) because of lax privacy. How do I know that Google won’t be using my information against me? This book (partially) confirmed my suspicions. They are using my information, both for and against me. Every time somebody performs a Google search, Google stores the query and information about me (my IP, my location, browser, etc) and uses that to tune search results for me. This appears on the surface to be fine. I like it when I search “cat” on Google and Google knows that what I really want is the first result to be whatismyip.com (I use the “cat” Google search as a quick method to test Internet browser connectivity, I don’t know why). But Vaidhyanatham (the author) raises other points about this. Firstly, how long is our data kept? And who else is it being shared with? But perhaps most disturbingly, Google might prevent me from seeing new information because it’s too busy telling me about what I think I want. For instance, if a new species of cat was discovered in the jungles of Peru, I might miss it because Google is too busy customising my results with Internet connectivity tests. While that not matter much, on other (more important) subjects the splitting up of information based on what we think we want to see is disturbing.
Vaidhyanatham raises many other points in his book too. The Google Books project is designed to give everybody in the world access to out-of-print books, instead of having them sit on dusty shelves in university libraries. It’s a nice goal. However, the program is structured in such a way that nobody else could possibly compete with it, due to arcane copyright law and out-of-court settlements. Do we want Google to be the sole provider of this service? Shouldn’t this be done by a public or community organisation instead? They’re difficult questions, and the fact that we haven’t even started considering them should warn us.
Another similar situation exists for Google Scholar. Google has obtained agreements with universities to provide academic articles for inclusion in Google’s archives. The idea, similarly to Google Books, is to allow more people to see things they wouldn’t have otherwise seen. A noble goal. Again, however, there are several problems with the project’s implementation. Again, arcane agreements and laws prevent universities from easily collaborating with an alternative archive agent. Even more worrying is the fact that to most users (those without access to the paywalled sites that the articles actually reside on) only the abstract of an article is available. This results in a broadening but a shallowing of the information available to most people. This is another of those projects that might be better taken on by the people, for the people. I know of one user on an IRC channel I frequent who is collecting datasheets and manuals from PC components from the 1980s, before these datasheets become extinct. While not legal, and while he hasn’t made this public, it’s the right direction to go in.
Then there’s the shallowing of our knowledge due to Google. This is a huge topic, and so many authors have covered it in so many various degrees of rigour that I won’t even begin to scratch the surface. However, here’s the gist of the idea: Because we have access to the largest library in human history (the web) at our fingertips at any point we’re in front of a computer (which for those of us with a smartphone, is constantly), we don’t remember information like previous generations did. I’m still not confident that this is a bad thing; I am a lot more knowledgeable than I would be if the only learning resource I had was a paper encyclopædia. I don’t know a lot of facts, but I know where to find them. In today’s world, that’s what counts. Still, it’s something we should look into further.
A good portion of the arguments put forward in this book are more general than Google and apply to the Internet at large (such as the shallowing of our knowledge). Most of the other arguments could be taken directly to Google’s legal department in a court showdown (which would almost certainly be the court case of the century). Whichever way you stand on the issues, more information is never a bad thing.