Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:
March 17, 2011 — As part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies in the University of Virginia' s College of Arts & Sciences, will discuss his new book, "The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)," Friday at 4 p.m. at the U.Va. Bookstore.
He will be joined by fellow media studies professors Andrea Press and Bruce Williams, co-authors of the recent book, "The New Media Environment: An Introduction," for a panel discussion of "Google, the New Media: The Present and Future," moderated by Trey Mitchell, webmaster at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Most of us don't go a day, often not even an hour, without turning to Google for something – from searching the Web with Google, to e-mailing with Gmail, to writing with Google Docs, to navigating with Google Maps, to watching a video clip on YouTube (owned by Google), to calling someone via Google Voice or with a smartphone running Google's Android operating system, to finding an article or book with Google Scholar and Google Book Search. Hardly a year passes that Google doesn't expand its services into another realm.
Nearly all of these services are free to the end user (paid for primarily by advertising), and have helped us tame the vast petabytes of data being generated in the Information Age.
"Most of what Google does for us is fabulous, beyond belief, high-quality, better than we could have imagined." Vaidhyanathan said.
Google's greatest contribution has been to make the Web usable, he said, by filtering search results according to certain biases, or "standards" as Google calls them. For instance, Google's bias against pornographic sites means that a search term like "facial" with a double-entendre will bury highly trafficked pornographic sites much lower in its search results. In many ways, such biases have made the Web safer and more useful.
But the biases baked into Google's search algorithms can also be insidious. In the past few years, in response to the growing power of Facebook, Google has begun to localize search results and personalize results based on one's history of interaction with Google, meaning that different people will receive different results when searching for the same terms.
"This is great for shopping, but not great for learning," Vaidhyanathan said. Google's algorithms favor the new and the ephemeral, which makes it more likely your searches will return a hot-selling toy or shoes in season. "The very changes that make Google better for shopping will limit the field of vision for anything else. You are less likely to come across anything that troubles or challenges you, less likely to come across information that has been thoroughly vetted and stood the test of time. I don't think that the public recognizes that basic Web search is less and less likely to teach you about the world in a comprehensive way.
"I want us to recognize that, for the past decade, we've been really lucky. We've had a good ride with this one search engine that has generally served us well for both shopping and learning. But over the next few years, those two things are likely to diverge.
"I would like to start a public conversation about some of the costs and benefits of using Google blindly."
According to several book reviews, Vaidhyanathan has succeeded. "Perhaps the most valuable accomplishment of 'The Googlization of Everything' is to point out that Google does not exist for our benefit," a reviewer with the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News wrote. "Google, in the end, is just another profit-driven business that must serve its paying customers and shareholders. It's 'not evil,' to use Google's famous unofficial motto. But it's not inherently good, either."
As Vaidhyanathan writes, "In fact, it's dangerous because of our increasing, uncritical faith in and dependence on it, and because of the way it fractures and disrupts almost every market or activity it enters – usually for the better, but sometimes for the worse. Google is simultaneously new, wealthy and powerful. This rare combination means that we have not yet assessed or come to terms with the changes it brings to our habits, perspectives, judgments, transactions and imaginations.
"If nothing else, I hope to deflate hyperbole about the company, its services, and the Web in general, and to shift the tone of public conversation from one of blind faith and worship of the new to one of sober concern about the wrenching changes we have invited and unleashed."