Coming into the Cybercountry

Reviewed By Jonathan Prude

Googled: The End of The World as We Know It. Ken Auletta. New York: Penguin, 2009.

The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Siva Vaidhyanathan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

On the other hand, my semi-detached stance hardly means I’m uninterested in the emerging land of binary communication. As an academic historian, as a participant in discussions about the future of my own university’s library, and also simply as a resident of the early twenty-first century, I’ve felt the need, even the duty, to assess changes in how we collect, analyze, and transmit information. I’ve wondered, that is, whether we’ve merely moved incrementally from the telegraph, typewriter, and telephone to the radio, television, and computer. Or is this last step, the embrace of the computer, a really big deal, a paradigm shift like those that introduced alphabets, books, and the printing press? Either way, of course, the practices of reading and writing words, listening to sounds, and watching images have been deeply affected. So I’ve also been drawn to ponder how our culture has responded to recent shifts in information technology—including how we’ve chosen to talk about these developments, the stories we’re telling ourselves.

There are, to be sure, dozens of recent commentaries on digitization. But a theme in many of them is the importance of the web and, in particular, the role of the enterprise called Google. What this company claims for itself is widely accepted as fact: “The Internet makes information available; Google makes information accessible.” So it is that two recent studies of Google provide useful leverage, for academics as well as the general public, on vital elements of the new digital world—the new “country”—coming into view.

The main story Ken Auletta tells in Googled: The End of the World as We Know It is the chronological tale of the birth and early stages of the company itself. First published in 2009, Googled remains valuable in considerable measure because Auletta, media critic for the New Yorker and a seasoned journalist, knows how to keep our attention. He provides intriguing sketches of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who, as Stanford graduate students, crafted the original Google search engine that answered queries by identifying appropriate websites ranked by their demonstrated utility to users. While rooted in constantly evolving—and secret—algorithms, and though not entirely unique, PageRank (as the system is called) drew immediate praise because it managed the unmanageably vast web in seemingly sensible and trustworthy ways. Not only was the list of sites generated by searches impressively expansive, but the prominent place of particular sites reflected only their collectively determined reliability. Rank in PageRank was not for sale.

Besides introducing us to Google’s originators, Auletta offers deft portraits of other significant figures in the company. And he lets us glimpse Google’s arresting internal culture: its famous if maddeningly elusive slogan, “Don’t be evil”; the free massages; the time for independent projects; and the way Brin and Page (whom Auletta soon refers to only as “the founders”) remained custodians of Google’s “vision,” often sweeping into meetings to inspire—or goad—fellow “Googlers” to strive for the imaginative.

Like many good stories, though, Googled also has a strong narrative arc. And the arc is not just that of smart young entrepreneurs “making it” but of a coming-of-age biography, a bildungsroman. The company and its founders age: the former has key birthdays and enters “adolescence”; the latter marry, have children, and face physical infirmity. And they mature together through key turning points: the initially “clean” and free service of answering queries is monetized by linking searches to ads, and Google soon expands to ventures in software and content. Intriguingly, Auletta invests this evolution with a sense of innocence lost. The Google “rocket” proved astonishingly successful and made many Googlers rich. But our boys, Brin and Page, needed a management coach and had to be persuaded to hire a CEO and address profits (“What’s a business plan?” Brin asks early on). They did not at first understand the cynical ways of Washington or foreign nations, especially China, and they were shocked to learn that what they regarded as their basic—and uplifting—mission of empowering people by spreading information has not been universally admired.

This last comeuppance—the revelation that not everyone loves Google—permits Auletta to add a secondary story: the company’s impact. Besides some 150 conversations with the founders and other Googlers, he talks with leaders in “old media” industries like advertising, publishing, television, and music that have been brushed—or bruised—by Google. And it’s here that we find signs that the Internet, and Google’s harnessing of it, really is a big deal. Or at least we find people persuaded of this. Because while Googlers are not unmindful of the altered synergies they’ve unleashed by facilitating access to the information-thick web, it’s the non-Googlers Auletta interviews who seem fixed on the prospect of seismic transformations. There is, in fact, so much talk in these quarters of fundamental recastings that we soon realize we are watching people intent on watching themselves face radical change: a paradigm shift featuring amazing, perhaps unexampled, levels of self-consciousness. The talk in any case is charged with raw emotions. There is excitement. But equally, there is fear and anger over the wrenching and confusing revisions wrought by Google. The talk is often of facing decisions reckoned at once make-or-break and utter jumps in the dark. And it is consequently often thick with heated metaphors, with images of “sitting in a castle” surrounded by swamps and under fire from “a rain of arrows.”

Auletta is less grim. He concedes that the rate of change is astonishing and powerfully consequential (hence his subtitle). Parts of the “old media” will likely not survive. And he does not deny that engineers like Brin and Page rely too heavily on algorithms to answer all human questions. Yet Googled is not a lament. Auletta’s judgment seems to be that the reshaping of the information landscape now under way is irreversible and carries as much promise as problems. So, too, he seems convinced that the specific future of Google is strong. The company faces the challenge of fostering persistent creativity, and (what’s vital to its self-vision) avoiding the purported greed of Microsoft. But while by no means engaging in mere cheerleading, Auletta ends his breezily informative survey by suggesting there is no reason to think our boys and their undertaking will not continue looming large. After all, he concludes, no “other company . . . has swept so swiftly across the media horizon.”

And events since Googled’s initial publication support this view. For the breaking news is that Brin and Page have reexerted direct control, that their operations are moving steadily further beyond search services tout court, and that Google overall is posting splendid profits. These same developments, however, probably give little joy to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia who has for some while harbored serious reservations about what the success of this company portends. The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) treats the phenomenon of Google more than the enterprise per se and hence makes primary what Auletta treats as secondary: Google’s impact. And, given his attitude toward its impact (the message of his subtitle), the story Vaidhyanathan tells is laden with concern.

At first, then, Googlization seems to fit within the familiar narrative of the reformist critique of corporate power. But in fact, Vaidhyanathan’s saga (sprinkled with references to Foucault and Habermas, Borges and Dewey) is more complex. He does not construe Google as bad in any simple sense, nor does he seem to assume this company will soon disappear. Ultimately, what he calls for is not no Google but greater alertness to its effect on our lives. And the real model for Googlization is thus perhaps actually another narrative form: American-style jeremiads that summon people not to discard the status quo (in this case the web) so much as to admit problems (or sins) and press on.

Vaidhyanathan can be repetitive and tendentious; he does not possess Auletta’s storytelling skills. Yet he raises significant issues—some of which, admittedly, are broached in Googled but to which Googlization accords helpfully concentrated attention. The issues highlighted vary, extending all the way to how Google-led web usage across the globe has promoted narrow parochialisms more than genuine international sharing. Often, though, Vaidhyanathan strikes closer to home and, notwithstanding the company’s proliferating portfolio, pivots around its core search operations. He notes, for example, that for all its merits, PageRank is biased against sites that are deemed distasteful or that some jurisdictions judge illegal and toward others whose popularity (and hence high rank) reflect purposes beyond merely harvesting data. Of course, any classification system has limits. And much of Vaidhyanathan’s urging here is simply that we educate ourselves to PageRank’s special slants.

But he also goes further. He notes that even the supposedly sophisticated searches of Google Scholar exchange breadth for subtlety. And he raises concerns about the data Google has gathered about its users. Despite Google’s pledge not to reveal the identities of individual searchers, Vaidhyanathan wonders whether it is not effectively exerting a “surveilling” gaze, eroding privacy by tracking the trail of preferences people unwittingly leave behind in “googling” and—more ominously—creating at least the chance that Google might one day surrender its user profiles (identities included) to others.

More profoundly, he suggests that Google has increasingly employed its profiles to tilt searches (and accompanying ads) toward what it calculates specific users would find most “relevant.” Indeed, linking Vaidhyanathan’s discussion on this front with what other writers (even Auletta) occasionally intimate, we might say it’s here that Google and Foucault appear to overlap most closely. For it’s here we find speculations that the effectiveness and conveniences of PageRank are drawing us into self-imposed mental cocoons shaped by searches directed less toward the surprising and disturbing than the expected and comfortable—into versions, that is, of Foucault’s deeply disciplining but also thoroughly internalized rational regimes. The ultimate cost of relying on algorithms, in other words, may be to leave us surrounded by mirrors—and hence leave Google performing what Vaidhyanathan calls the “brilliant trick” of influencing us without appearing to do so.

Another bundle of Vaidhya-nathan’s concerns turns on the fact that Google is, ultimately, a business. More precisely, his concern fixes on Google’s habit of combining its understandable desire to make money with its frequently invoked intention to be admirable: to follow its “don’t be evil” mantra and spread information. For Vaidhyanathan, Google’s determination to be both good and profitable, and its reluctance to admit tension between these aims, only underscores the need to become fully alert to the company’s role in our milieu. His point, again, is not that Google is bad. His point is that we must realize Google’s efforts to serve the common good are always also efforts to serve itself.

Probably nowhere is this tangle of goals more evident than in the venture known as Google Books. Praised as a noble campaign to expand access to written materials, and understood as an undertaking of immense potential consequence to academe, Google’s campaign to digitize the holdings of major research libraries was simultaneously condemned for violating various copyright strictures. And, as of this writing, a judge has blocked the project. But the key criticism leveled by Vaidhyanathan, as well as by Harvard’s university librarian, historian Robert Darnton, is that curating this large swath of the human record—serving this enormous common good—is simply not the proper task of private enterprise. Even currently robust companies will not literally last forever, Darnton and Vaidhyanathan point out, and as a result whatever arrangements Google might end up forging about copyright and preserving digital book holdings cannot be taken as permanent. More deeply, the bedrock reality—the truth about Google’s role that academics and nonacademics alike need to understand—is that any version of Google Books that goes forward will surely entail this corporation’s making decisions about digitized texts along lines congruent with its business interests. We do not need to embrace Vaidhyanathan’s fantasy of libraries devolving into Google-managed digital vending machines to share the unease he and Darnton express at the prospect of our common heritage devolving thus into marketed commodities.

But Google Books also points to a final issue: what Google reveals about American civic society. Vaidhyanathan and Darnton both acknowledge that Google Books emerged in no small measure because the public entities they believe should digitize libraries did not step forward. Indeed, Vaidhyanathan contends that Google’s aggregate capacity to loom so large, and to do so often under the banner of doing good, has been facilitated by the currently diminished state of public energies. In fact, the connection between Google and civic life might have been explored more broadly by our authors. Underscoring the relation between Google and relatively crimped present-day notions of citizenship and the public would have added analytical bite to how Auletta tells his story, allowing him to position Googled more firmly in a particular historical moment. By the same token, digging deeper into this topic would have invested Googlization’s sometimes abstract cautionary tales with greater concreteness. For it would have sharpened Vaidhyanathan’s concerns if he had wondered not just whether Google benefited from a diminished public sphere but also whether the enormous space this company occupies in our culture directly contributed to that diminishment. In truth, another important story both Vaidhyanathan and Auletta might have told would involve considering whether part of digitization’s really big deal is precisely to have spawned a business whose blending of power and supposedly common-good mission has actually made it increasingly difficult to separate citizenship from consumption and public from private corporations.

Of course, other questions remain about digitization and the web. What, finally, will become of the objects we know as “books”? Will hyperlinks alter the nature of texts? Will we continue reading from beginning to end? Will the theoretically democratizing “crowd wisdom” of Wikipedia (and to some extent PageRank itself) alter our notions of individual authorship? Like the full impact of Google on American civic life, such issues are largely bypassed by Auletta and Vaidhyanathan. Yet what their studies do accomplish is surely valuable. For in different ways, Googled and Googlization unquestionably help map what’s happening around us: the astonishing “country” to which we’ve all immigrated.

Jonathan Prude teaches history and American studies at Emory University. He is completing a study currently titled “The Appearance of Class: The Visual Presence of American Working People from the Revolution and World War I.” His e-mail address is histjp@emory.edu.

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