Siva Vaidhyanathan. The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). University of California Press. 2010. Hardcover. 280 p. $ 26.95. ISBN 978978-0520258822.
Do we really need to worry about Google? After all, this search engine has created order out of the chaos that is the World Wide Web. It is almost magical—offering up so much information instantly—apparently for free. But is it, in fact, free?
Siva Vaidhyanathan wants us to pause on that question and recognize the costs incurred as we passively permit Google to dominate information access. He asks us to consider not just the gains, but the losses associated with “inviting Google to be the lens through which we view the world.” The author’s insightful and compelling examination of this information giant make this book a highly recommended purchase for law libraries (particularly academic law libraries) and a must-read for librarians.
Vaidhyanathan readily acknowledges the “good” that Google provides. We all know about this from our daily use of this tool’s numerous applications. But as librarians, we are also innately suspicious of Google. We recognize the misapprehension of born digitals, lazy researchers, and the uninformed who suppose that Google is the best place to find quality information. Vaidhyanathan challenges us to look beyond the more obvious problems associated with casual reliance on the unvetted information Google provides. He asks us to contemplate the broader societal and cultural implications of allowing a private company to “determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world.”
As defined here, “Googlization of Everything,” is Google’s pervasiveness in our culture; its putting “previously unimaginable resources at our fingertips.” Its presence in the popular vernacular as a verb as well as a noun. Its access to “our personal information, habits, opinions and judgments.” The widespread belief that Google’s search rankings somehow act as a virtual Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Through his six central chapters, Vaidhyanathan examines how Google dominates the Web in much of the world not only as the de facto King of search, but also through the popularity of its numerous other applications. While not suggesting that Google’s behemoth status is unlawfully anticompetitive, he does warn that the more we embrace Google, the more Google is allowed to control the ebb and flow of information. The problem, he contends, is that information is not a typical commodity best governed by market forces. Information access is a matter of public concern that is being dominated by an private entity motivated by revenue-production, not by serving the public interest.
Particularly noteworthy is the discussion of the adverse impact of Google’s ranking system and search features on education. Study after study reveals that Google impacts students’ expectations of other information sources. Students rely on Google before the library because it appears easier to use; it even appears to think for them by making suggestions based on past searches and personal settings. One of the problems here is that Google’s search algorithm allows popularity to serve as the principal measure of quality. Another is that students are also ill-equipped to wade through the morass of information they uncover. But Vaidhyanathan reveals a less apparent troubling consequence of Google’s filtering role. The more we allow our information to be filtered by popular opinion as well as personalization features, the more we limit our exposure to different sources and viewpoints. Thus, while Google appears to broaden global connections, its localizing and customizing of search results may act to merely reinforce previously held perspective and belief.
Overall, Vaidhyanathan’s most pervasive concern is not directed at Google’s behavior, but our own. He recognizes that Google provides many useful tools and simplifies many everyday needs. It’s great for shopping. In the broadest sense, it allows for greater democratization of information. But, he argues, we have mistakenly allowed our trust in this private corporation, and popular skepticism about the efficacy of government, to allow Google to usurp a role best served by public and educational institutions. Vaidhyanathan persuasively illustrates this point by reviewing the history of the Google Books project, arguing it has been a misguided intrusion on the purview of librarians.
Vaidhyanathan’s arguments are compelling, even if one may find that his alarm occasionally rings too loudly. But being alarmist is part of his goal here. He wants us to wake up, abandon complacency, and think critically about the digital world and how it should operate to the benefit of all. There is no more appropriate audience for this message than librarians. And, there is no greater proponent of the value of librarians than the author. (He refers to his books as “love song(s) to all libraries and librarians I have known.”) For that reason too, this book warrants our attention.
Reviewed by Debbie Shrager, Part-Time Reference Librarian, George Mason University Law Library.