Didn't you notice Google's crown slipping?
13:16 14 March 2011
The Googlization of Everything by Siva Vaidhyanathan is intelligent and provocative, but fails to see the challenge of the social internet
TIMING, they say in Silicon Valley, is everything. Start-ups have a narrow window of opportunity that determines their success or failure. Google, the internet search engine company founded by Stanford University graduate students Sergey Brin and Larry Page in September 1998, is no exception. The company would never have succeeded had it been founded before 1998, when the technology to power a complex search engine didn't exist, or after 1999, when better financed start-ups would inevitably have stolen Google's thunder.
Timing is also critical for books about Google. Successful books about the firm's rise from a two-man, garage start-up to the world's fourth best-known brand bear this out. Appropriately euphoric or apocalyptic books about the company have mirrored each new evolution of Google - from plucky ingenue, to do-no-evil superhero, to ominous leviathan.
First there was John Battelle's The Search (Portfolio, 2005), an introduction to the idea of search as the central epistemological and business reality of the digital economy. Then came David Vise's and Mark Malseed's hagiographical The Google Story (Delacorte Press, 2005) which was countered by Randall Stross's darker, more cautionary Planet Google (Free Press, 2008) and then by Ken Auletta in Googled: The end of the world as we know it (Penguin Press, 2009), a tale of overarching hubris and potential decline.
If there is anything as inevitable as seeing that little Google toolbar on your computer screen, it's a new book about Google. The striking thing about Siva Vaidhyanathan's intelligent and provocative The Googlization of Everything (And why we should worry), though, is its poor timing. The book - which compares Google's "control" to that of the "divine" Julius Caesar in 48 BC Rome - is old news. His apocalyptic vision of Google as "omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent" might have made sense back in 2008, when Stross's Planet Google was published, but today it is Google who is likely to be paranoid about the future.
Yes, timing is everything - and right now the internet is undergoing a great shift from a Google-centric platform of data to a Facebook-centric platform of people. Everything on today's internet is going social - just look at Groupon's social commerce, Twitter's social messaging, Zynga's social gaming or Quora's social knowledge. Even Google's search, which is responsible for over 90 per cent of its revenue, is becoming increasingly social, with Microsoft's Bing and smaller start-ups seeing social recommendation as a more valuable driver of search than Google's artificial algorithm.
The problem for Google is that "social" isn't in the company's DNA. That explains why Google tried to buy Groupon for $6 billion and why it now considers Facebook, and not Microsoft, to be its most dangerous competitor. It also explains why Google is losing many of its best people to social start-ups, why CEO Eric Schmidt resigned in January and why co-founder Sergey Brin is now focusing on developing Google's social strategy.
But instead of this new social landscape, all Vaidhyanathan can see is the Googlization of knowledge, memory and surveillance. What's more, he mistakes Google for the internet as a whole. His argument for legislating Google is really an argument for legislating the entire internet - from Google to Facebook to increasingly intrusive geolocation services like FourSquare and Gowalla.
Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media studies scholar at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, is at his most provocative with his call for a Google-led "human knowledge project", akin to the human genome project, which would establish a public sphere for the internet for open debate. This, rather than ever-changing Google, would have been a more timeless subject for this academic's considerable talents.
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