The Googlization of Everything: The Digital is Political

Cover of The Googlization of Everything

The Googlization of Everything

Siva Vaidhyanathan


HD9696.8 .U64 G669 2010


So. The Googlization of Everything.  It’s very much in conversation with What Would Google Do?; in fact, Jarvis is thanked in the credits as a “sparring partner.”  However, it’s a very different type of book. Where WWGD is really a business book, and this one is much more philosophical, even political.

Vaidhyanathan’s central argument has a lot to do with the notion of “public failure,” which he explains at some length and with which I wasn’t familiar. Basically, this is what happens when the government abdicates its responsibility in areas that should be public.  The failure of FEMA after Katrina is used as an example, but it’s not hard to think of more. The one that is currently making my hair stand on end is the privatization of libraries, but again, this is all over the place.  As public agencies give up control over essential services, private companies step in to fill the gaps, but they fill them according to their own agendas, which involve making money and improving their image much more than serving the public good.  Vaidhyanathan argues that Google, too, has stepped into some areas that should be done publicly and not by a private company—but the political atmosphere in the United States makes it very difficult to take on projects that are new and exciting and expensive.

This is a fascinating and complex argument and I strongly recommend reading the whole book.  I just wanted to point out a couple things that were interesting to me, and to ask a question.

First, there’s a very interesting argument about the nature of privacy and surveillance.  He writes:

[M]ost work surveying the troubling implications of mass surveillance has fundamentally misrepresented its nature. It assumes that surveillance of the kind that Google makes possible is analogous to the theory of social control described by Michel Foucault as the Panopticon. … The original Panopticon, conceived by Jeremy Bentham, was a design for a circular prison with a central watchtower, in which all the inmates would behave because they would assume that they were being observed at all times. Foucault argued that state programs to monitor and record our comings and goings create imaginary prisons that lead citizens to limit what they do out of fear of being observed by those in power.  (111)

So far, this is very familiar to me.  I’ve read the essay to which he refers (it’s a chapter of Discipline and Punish, the rest of which I haven’t read), and this is indeed the model on which I’d been operating. Even in library school, we learned that it was essential to keep reading records private because of potential chilling effects if library patrons felt that their records were open to others.  One fairly central tenet of librarianship is that privacy of reading records is an essential free speech right, because people could be discouraged from accessing the information they wished to access by pressures such as this. However, Vaidhyanathan continues:

[T]he Panopticon model does not suffice to describe our current predicaments. First, mass surveillance does not inhibit behavior; people may act weird regardless of the number of cameras pointed at them. The thousands of surveillance cameras in London and New York City do not deter the eccentric and avant-garde. … There is no empirical reason to believe that awareness of surveillance limits the imagination or cows creativity in a market economy under a nontotalitarian state.  … The forces at work in Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world are the opposite of a Panopticon: they involve not the subjection of the individual to the gaze of a single, centralized authority, but the surveillance of the individual, potentially by all, always by many.  … Unlike Bentham’s prisoners, we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled—we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance: instead, we don’t seem to care. (112)

I’m not sure that the panoptic model can be quite so easily dismissed; it’s extremely difficult to compare how people actually act under conditions of surveillance to how they would have acted. But the goals of this kind of surveillance seem to be quite different: not to discourage or encourage any particular type of behavior, but to gather information that may later be valuable, to marketers in particular but also perhaps to others.

“[M]ere expression of difference is usually both harmless and remarkably useful to the powerful” (113).

Really, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. All the data about me that the internet has—and by this time, I don’t doubt that it’s pretty extensive if it could all be assembled in one place—is put together just to try to sell me stuff? Just for that? Is that really worth it? When I think of all of the infrastructure that’s been built around this, I seriously doubt that my puny purchases make up whatever it costs just to get whatever they have about me. And what happens when they figure out that I don’t actually buy very many things at all?

But on the whole, this seems a lot less damaging than the panoptic model, or even the blackmail model.  I’m trying to think of the possible ill effects to me personally—I guess I might be persuaded to buy more things? Or perhaps I should feel exploited? I’m coming back to Jaron Lanier’s ACRL keynote speech here, where he explained that there are two versions of me, one that I intentionally create, and one that is based on all my data and is very valuable to the companies that own it, and which they will never share with me, because it is too valuable.  And I admit that this is more than a little irritating.

But maybe the real concern here is the commercialization of daily life.  I get really tired of seeing ads all over the place, and I find myself tolerating them more than I formerly did because I’m getting things for “free.” (Heh—I’m listening to Pandora right now. Clearly my resistance to this is limited.)  Even if they were ads for things I was interested in, I still would prefer not to see them.  And being constantly encouraged to buy something as I’m just trying to go on about my business, or entertain myself, or whatever, does represent an intrusion in my daily experience.

So, the consequence of losing privacy in this particular way is not a loss of freedom of expression—rather, it’s that we must spend our lives in continual engagement with commercial entities, not just the ones that we choose to engage with but also the ones that they refer to us.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Googlization of Everything: The Digital is Political

  1. Pingback: Feminism without Borders: Inquiry vs. Business | onereadleaf

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