Google's Gadfly

“Uncomfortably familial.” That is how Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, describes the relationship between higher education and Google — a company that has, in a little more than a decade, evolved from pet project of Stanford doctoral students to chief usher of the information age.

February 16, 2011

“Uncomfortably familial.” That is how Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, describes the relationship between higher education and Google — a company that has, in a little more than a decade, evolved from pet project of Stanford doctoral students to chief usher of the information age.

The company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, first explained their game-changing PageRank algorithm — which, drawing on the principles of peer-review (swapping citations for hyperlinks), propelled Google past incumbent search leaders AltaVista and Yahoo! — in an academic paper in 1999. Later, Page and Brin would rely on university largesse in the early days of the Google Book Search project, when major research libraries allowed the company to scan huge portions of their collections for free.

In return, Google has given higher education Google Scholar, which provides a popular bridge to otherwise obscure academic research; Google Apps for Education, which enables universities to use the company’s e-mail and communications tools, and its huge server capacity, for free; and, of course, Google Book Search — which, despite its discomfiting monopoly, gives scholars a more comprehensive body of digitized literature than has ever existed. “Google,” Vaidhyanathan observes, “is an example of a stunningly successful firm behaving as much like a university as it can afford to.”

But as is often the case with cousins, the genetic differences between higher education and Google are more striking than their similarities. Beneath the interdependence and shared hereditary traits, tensions creep. And like an awkward Thanksgiving dinner, Vaidhyanathan’s new book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (University of California Press), provokes these tensions to the surface.

The Virginia professor, who is not afraid to confess his affection for the ease and usefulness of Google, nevertheless distrusts the company’s basic motivations as it vies for our intellectual inheritance. “Google has fostered a more seamless, democratized, global, cosmopolitan information ecosystem,” he writes. “Yet it has simultaneously contributed to the steady commercialization of higher education and the erosion of standards of information quality.”

Google does not reward our impulse to know, Vaidhyanathan argues; it exploits it by making it appear as though knowing is easy. “The ways that Google structures, judges, and delivers knowledge to us exacerbate our worst tendencies to jump to erroneous conclusions and act on them in ways that cause harm,” the professor writes. Meanwhile the company keeps collecting, on behalf of its advertisers, the wealth of personal information that we feed it in exchange for this flattery, then pats its own back all the way to the bank.

Vaidhyanathan’s point is not that Google has scammed us. He attributes the ascension of Google to a “public failure” — negligence by public stewards to preempt the privatization of knowledge and learning in the switch from analog to digital. In other words, we should have seen this coming. Did Google’s academic bloodlines lull higher education into passively supporting Page and Brin as they quietly absconded with the family jewels? Perhaps, but Vaidhyanathan is less concerned with how we got here than where we are and where we’re going. Accordingly, he proposes a sprawling effort by libraries and like-minded institutions that would essentially give Googlers a public option. “The future of knowledge — and thus the future of the species — depends on our getting this right,” he writes.

Inside Higher Ed caught up with Vaidhyanathan, whose Wikipedia page credits him with coining the term “Critical Information Studies,” though it does not cite its source.

Q: You admit early on that your book has an “overtly political” agenda: greater government regulation of Google. When a company exerts such control over public goods — like, say, a digital archive of 130 million books comprising the entire living history of human thought — oversight by public authorities becomes necessary, you argue. One might counter that public institutions are potentially just as compromising. To the extent that regulation would transfer power over the basic infrastructure of knowledge and learning from Google to the government, might we simply be trading the hazards of commercialization for the hazards of politicization?

A: While I argue that we should consider — not fear — the prospect of regulating Google, I stop short of prescribing much in the way of specific regulation. My goal is to convince readers that Google is already highly regulated, so it's dumb to say that Google should remain unregulated. More importantly, I want to raise the prospect of whether Google and the Internet in general are properly regulated. That, to me, is the grown-up way to approach the question. Right now Google is haphazardly and clumsily regulated. Copyright stops Google and others from doing clever, useful things. Antitrust is too toothless to provide serious competition in online, search-based advertisements. Most important from the perspective of the values important to a democratic republic, Google's search standards are opaque and potentially corrupt. That's why the European Union is examining them. I don't believe Google's search results are corrupted. I do believe they very well could be in the near future. And there is no guarantee that the next company that governs search would be named Google. As to the direct questions about whether the transfer of authority from firm to state would "simply be trading the hazards of commercialization for the hazards of politicization," I say exactly! Politicization means that citizens battle over competing visions of the good. That's what we are supposed to do in a democratic republic. Fundamentally, we must recognize that some things are too important to be entrusted to unaccountable private actors. There may be hazards. But they are our hazards.

Q: As you write, it is not just our institutions that are being “Googlized”; so are our minds and habits. Some surveys have suggested that nearly half of college students use Google as their primary research tool. “Googlized” students have poor memories and inflated expectations about how much effort it takes to dig up definitive answers. A Greek chorus of tsk-ing academics has all but declared this a preamble to the Twitter-apocalypse. Are they right?

A: I don't subscribe to the "Google is making us dumber" position. I think Google is allowing us to be differently smart. I also refuse to bracket off my students as some exotic tribe that behaves and reacts differently than I do or my mother does. We are all in this crazy environment together. The challenges we share are much more important and interesting than the differences we might demonstrate across age groups. So yeah, Google is my primary research tool. It's also my mother's. Collectively, our dependence on Google is not a problem because it allegedly weakens our faculties. It's a problem because Google bakes biases into its algorithms. And we fail to recognize that fact. Most of the time, we can't even discern what they are. Most of the recent changes in Google's search algorithms make Google much better for shopping and much worse for learning. That could make us collectively dumber, but not individually. That's why we need a fresh approach to how we manage our information ecosystem. The same service cannot serve wisdom and wealth equally well. I'm sorry. What was the question? I got distracted by YouTube for a moment...

Q: At a digital scholarship conference last fall, I watched Daniel M. Russell, a senior research scientist at Google in charge of “user happiness,” give an academic audience a demonstration of what treasures lie in the depths of Google’s trove — a facsimile of Stravinsky’s score from “Sacre du Printemps,” a 3-D model of the Notre Dame Cathedral, unemployment data for Santa Clara County over the last 20 years — before lamenting that most students have no idea how to find them. The implication was that Google has created this rich, open vault that students love to use but which colleges are failing to teach them to use effectively. To what extent can better training and education realistically solve this problem?

A: Well, I am not sure training is the gap here. Google keeps rolling out cool features and services faster than we can fold them into our habits and curricula. A couple of weeks ago Google unveiled a really cool high-definition tool to explore major art works in museums. Every day I plan to use it to show my daughter some of her favorite works. But every evening I forget to do that because I just can't get out of the tangle of links connecting YouTube videos.

Google has not figured out how to connect with the right faculty in the right numbers for many of its services. But it's not really Google's fault. Perhaps each university should assign a librarian to be the Chief Google Officer so she or he could hip faculty to the newest, coolest things.

Q: Lest our readers assume that your book is a frothing, techno-phobic screed penned by a dyed-in-the-tweed academic who lives to prove that any large, profitable company is necessarily sinister and exploitative, I should mention that you actually have some quite nice things to say about Google in these pages. What is the greatest contribution Google has made to higher education and/or intellectual life?

A: Google made the Web usable. Before this clean and useful search tool, using the Web well meant starting at a trusted point and following trusted links. That's why it is called a "web." With decent search one can just drop down into a new part of the Web, skipping over the useless and icky parts. Google actually cleaned up the Web — or at least our experience of it. Not long ago simple searches for double entendres like "facial" would yield anything but links to the cosmetic spa treatment. Google's biases — what it calls standards — effectively hide the most troublesome links deep in the search results. You can find the yucky stuff by searching for exactly what you might want. But you are unlikely to stumble upon bad stuff accidentally. This is a great service, but one with real costs at the margins.

Beyond that, Google Docs is a major service to higher education. It's the easiest and most dependable way to allow multiple authors and editors to work on a document together. It lacks the useless gizmos that infect Microsoft Office. I use the Google Docs presentation software to run slides for class because it's simple, dependable, and can host embedded YouTube videos. Did I mention that I spend too much time on YouTube? That said, I believe it's incumbent on universities to ensure maximum user confidentiality and data security for any Google product. I don't believe universities have been strong or effective negotiators for their students' and faculties' interests when it comes to using Google services. There should be a collective set of best practices for when universities deploy third-party services that collect user data.

Q: Your book culminates with a proposal for an alternative to Google’s “hyper-commercialized, data-mined, advertising-directed” model — working title: the Human Knowledge Project. Contrary to Google, this project would set the agenda for the creation of a information system that is public, comprehensive, civic-minded, and strong enough to outlast its colorful, colossal counterpart. How plausible is it that a confederation of relatively cash-poor and fractious public institutions might actually shoulder the resolve and unity of vision to field a more stable alternative to Google? Does any part of you fear that what “the Googlization of everything” has taken from humanity, humanity lacks the will to reclaim?

A: The Human Knowledge Project would be a 50-year public, global plan to design, legislate for, enable, and fund a global digital library service to deliver the best information to the most people. It's as feasible as it is desirable. In other words, if we don't do it it's because we don't really want it. States are only as cash-poor as they choose to be. States are only as incompetent as they are designed to be. The fractured nature of public discourse could be the source of strength for such a project as long as we all agree on the terms of debate and the over-arching goal: that no child growing up in Sweden should have better access to better information than a child growing up in Rwanda would have. If we don't agree to that, then we should not pursue the Human Knowledge Project. If we do agree, then let's start a political campaign for it. Let's figure out the steps we need to take. Let's change the laws we need to change. Let's raise the money we need to raise. The goal would not be to oust or push Google. The goal would be to build what we want and need without resorting to cheap, short-term fixes. If anyone should "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible," it should be the world itself.

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