How has internet titan Google changed our knowledge, our politics and our lives over the last two decades? Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of “The Googlization of Everything,” argues that Google affects the information we gather, jeopardises our personal privacy, and hinders public projects. Vaidhyanathan spoke to Maria Armoudian about the impact of Google.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a Professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. He is an expert in critical information studies and is the author of The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry).
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: You say that now we see the world through a lens of Google and it’s changing the way we think. How so?
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Think about all the different ways we depend on Google without really thinking about what we’re doing. We’ve outsourced so much judgment and decision-making to this one company. Unfortunately for us and for the company, it’s done a pretty good job of guiding us through these questions. There are so many biases built into Google’s search system. Google is increasingly focusing its search results to reflect what you have already told Google you’re interested in, so your field of vision is getting narrower and narrower. Google is helping to reinforce what you already know, already think, already like. This is really good for shopping, but it’s not really good for learning. In an ideal learning environment, you’re challenged, you’re surprised, you’re thrown for a loop. As Google continues to give you what you already feel satisfied by – say you’re researching a major political issue – Google has some sense of the places you’ve tended to go on your own and is going to want to reinforce those habits with the same sources you’ve gone to, or sources very clearly like it. You’re almost certainly going to get results that reinforce what you already think, and nothing makes you feel better than to think you know what is going on and then find four or five good-looking websites that echo back to you what you think is true, but that is not necessarily the best way to research health information or big scientific information or public policy. In those situations, we actually do want to get a sense of the complexity, a sense of the back and forth about the flaws in certain arguments and the weaknesses of certain claims. For that reason, I think it’s really important that we understand and just decide that it’s not a magical force that will guide us to the right answers or will settle anything more complex than a bar bet. If you really want to explore something complex, interesting, human, it’s much better to talk to an information professional or librarian. Talk to experts in the field, use multiple search sources at the beginning of your search, and don’t be satisfied with any of the answers.
MA: You actually compared it to Julius Caesar’s rule in Rome. How do they really compare?
SV: Let’s not pretend that Google is a brutal dictator in any way. [I was trying to make the point] that there was a time not so long ago when the web was deemed unrulable and ungovernable. It seemed too crazy and lawless and there didn’t seem to be a way to get control of it, and Google figured out how to step into that vacuum with the applause and acclamation of us – millions, billions of web users. And to a large degree Google now determines the shape and feel of the web. It rules the web with soft power but it rules the web nonetheless. So, it’s a benevolent dictator, it’s an unelected dictator, but it’s a dictator nonetheless.
MA: You’ve said that it ensures that our web experience is calmer, friendlier, or less controversial and less frightening…
SV: Think back ten years ago, if you were on the web looking for innocent information the chances of stumbling upon pornography were very high. You would never put a four-year-old child on your lap as you did web searches. There were huge trust issues and without really noticing it we’ve all become so comfortable and I think we actually have Google to thank for this. Google does not actually operate like a flat plane of glass. It makes editorial decisions about what is important and what is not, and one of the ways it does that is it judges certain aspects of web page design to be appropriate and significant and worthy of ranking higher and takes other factors and ranks them lower. And it just so happens that these factors track with which pages are not pornography and which pages are pornography. So without censoring any pornography Google has managed to downgrade the scores of pornographic pages thus making them less likely to be stumbled upon.
MA: There is a little bit of a censorship issue not just that it chooses things that you already like, but also you gave an example in your book about on YouTube there was an issue with a New Mexico politician Heather Wilson. Tell us what happened?
SV: One of the problems is that anytime someone is making political commentary using clips of news programs you are essentially engaging in what is known in copyright law as fair use. You’re taking someone’s copyrighted work but because its public interest material and news material it has a very low threshold of protection under copyright. If you use that material in a new way that helps enhance political discussion or debate then you should not be subject to any sort of punishment. Unfortunately with YouTube, Google has to obey a rather clumsy part of the copyright law where if a copyright holder demands that you take something down it goes down right away. So in the Wilson case, someone had made a critical video for YouTube, a clip of [Wilson’s] husband and it was quickly taken down in a copyright claim. And that is the sort of thing that can mess up political discourse, it’s really hard to get that put back up. So that is just one of the many ways that Google essentially protects itself – the very fact that you can use copyright as an instrument of censorship is kind of disturbing.
MA: You also mentioned it intervened when an anti-Semitic site turned up higher than the Wikipedia listing.
SV: At times Google has been accused of not doing enough to downgrade hate speech, and anti-Semitic speech has been the most noticed of this. And over the years Google officials have been very clear that it’s not people at Google making these decisions, it’s the algorithms that are reading the web, and the fact is the web is full of nasty stuff and stuff written by nasty people and there is not much you can do about that. So it has been in Google’s interest to get everyone to believe that Google is not making editorial decisions. The fact is Google is, it’s just making it at a distance, it’s not making direct editorial decisions, it’s not saying this page and not this page, but it’s building values into its algorithm that certainly favour or disfavour certain pages. And there are places in the world like Germany, for instance, where anti-Semitic sites don’t show up in Google searches, so Google is making those decisions in other parts of the world but it’s not in the United States. I do think that Google should be straightforward about the extent to which it does favour and disfavour certain materials and right now Google is not being straightforward about that.
MA: How does it decide? Is it really a strict algorithm based on preferences of the user, or is it popularity, or is it some combination of both?
SV: It’s a combination of those two things and thousands of other factors and we’re not allowed to know the ingredients in the soup. We know some basic things: for years the major factor was the number of incoming links to a particular page. So if you’re doing a search for something like “Boston Red Sox”, Google would go and examine every page that has that phrase “Boston Red Sox”, and each page would get a score and that score would be a result of the number of other pages pointing to those pages so the most popular page will be ranked higher. And that was the core of Google’s search algorithm for years and it still is a major part. On top of that, Google tries to look for some other signals like page design choices, how slick and smooth certain pages are, how cluttered or clean…and then, of course, Google with this personalisation move over the last two years is increasingly dictating your search results based on what you’ve already told it, so you and I are very likely to get a different set of search results for the same search done at the same time by virtue of having interacted with Google in different ways over the years and by virtue of being in different places. I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia so my searches are going to be affected by what other people in Charlottesville search for.
MA: Google copies everything, blogs, photos, material. How is this company using it to their advantage but to our disadvantage?
SV: Everything is rigged for Google’s advantage. In one sense Google copies everything that is on the web, but in another sense Google also makes a record of all of our activity, all of our clicks, all of the times that we hover over a link and don’t click. Google has a tremendous amount of information about what we like and what we don’t like and Google uses this information for two purposes. One is, from their point of view, to improve search, from my point of view it just improves shopping. The other way that Google uses it is to target advertisements to us. Over time Google is going to be able to do enough statistical analysis to be able to pretty accurately figure out our politics, what kind of cars we like. Now the good news is Google does not sell that information to any third-party companies…
MA: Not yet.
SV: Yeah, it doesn’t do it yet and under the current regime I’m not convinced Google needs to – Google’s making a tremendous amount of money. When things go badly as they do for every company at that point Google could do some really nasty things and sell a lot of this information to the highest bidder. In addition, all this information is susceptible to fishing expeditions by federal investigators and that could sweep innocent people up into dragnets and that could be bad news.
MA: Let’s talk for a moment about Google’s effect on journalism and what they are doing now with major news organisations.
SV: There are some news organisations that have been very nasty about Google. Rupert Murdoch, who owns News Corporation which of course owns Fox News… has accused Google of essentially free-riding on other people’s work. I don’t think that’s a fair characterisation of what Google does, in many ways what Google does with most websites is that it gives a lot of people exposure, it drives traffic to the websites that know how to play the game. That is part of the problem. Some websites like Huffington Post really know how to play the game. The game is search engine optimisation, the game is understanding what Google loves and giving Google what it loves. And so when you do a web search about a news issue you’re very likely to come across a Huffington Post version of that story and not a New York Times version of that story and that is because Huffington Post knows the game and the other news organisations don’t. That is not necessarily good for journalism. Google has been trying to correct for that a little bit, it’s been trying to adjust its algorithms to favour what it considers to be high-quality sources like the New York Times, but this, of course, opens up all sorts of questions [like], “Well who are you to decide what’s high quality?”.
MA: I think perhaps we should end with this idea that what is really happening is that Google is preventing us from launching a truly great human knowledge project.
SV: Yeah, Google is crowding out a lot of interesting experimentation. Anytime that Google announces it’s going into a particular area it makes it really hard for public institutions, for foundations, and even for venture capitalists to justify investing in it, because who can compete with Google? And so when Google decided to go into the library scanning business to try to open up a lot of stuff to readers it scared a lot of people in the library community away from thinking big about creating a digital global library, or a digital national library. Fortunately, a bunch of people have decided that they are not going to let Google scare them and so led by some folks at Harvard University there is now a project for a digital public library of America that would take a long-term view of the idea of linking Americans to the information that they own and they bought. They’re not letting Google’s presence scare them in the least.
MA: You’re saying that they have established this process and this way of thinking that is actually hindering us from developing something that is truly beneficial to the public?
SV: Yeah, that is part of the problem. Google is such a big presence that it really crowds out a lot of imagination and a lot of interesting activity. So I really hope that as Google enters its [twenties] that we step back and we realise that Google is just a company, it’s a brilliant company, but it’s still just a company and we really need to demystify it as soon as possible.
MA: And what are the alternatives to Google?
SV: There are human beings, there are libraries, there are librarians, there are experts, and then there are a dozen or so search engines. The idea is to entertain diversity in search and understand that Google isn’t the answer to everything. If you’re doing searches for health information you would want to go to demonstrable experts in the field, not mess with Google and not WebMD, both of which are suspect. And some complicated subjects you really do want to talk to a librarian first, make sure you use embedded information not just something that some guy put up on a blog.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.