Googlization of the Globe: For Good (or Evil)

Google’s oft quoted corporate mantra — do no evil — reminds us to remain vigilant even if the company believes it does good and can do no wrong.

Google serves up countless search results to ease our never-ending thirst for knowledge, deals, news, quotes, jokes, user manuals, contacts, products and so on. This is clearly of tremendous benefit to us, to Google and to Google’s advertisers. Of course in fulfilling our searches Google collects equally staggering amounts of information — about us. Increasingly the company will know where we are, what we like and dislike, what we prefer, what we do, where we travel, with whom and why, how our friends are, what we read, what we buy.

As Jaron Lanier remarked in a recent post, there is a fine line between being a global index to the world’s free and open library of information and being the paid gatekeeper to our collective knowledge and hoarder of our collective online (and increasingly offline) behaviors, tracks and memories. We have already seen how Google, and others, can personalize search results based on our previous tracks thus filtering and biasing what we see and read, limiting our exposure to alternate views and opinions.

It’s quite easy to imagine a rather more dystopian view of a society gone awry manipulated by a not-so-benevolent Google when, eventually, founders Brin and Page retire to their vacation bases on the moon.

With this in mind Daniel Soar over at London Review of Books reviews several recent books about Google and offers some interesting insights.

[div class=attrib]London Review of Books:[end-div]

This spring, the billionaire Eric Schmidt announced that there were only four really significant technology companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, the company he had until recently been running. People believed him. What distinguished his new ‘gang of four’ from the generation it had superseded – companies like Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Cisco, which mostly exist to sell gizmos and gadgets and innumerable hours of expensive support services to corporate clients – was that the newcomers sold their products and services to ordinary people. Since there are more ordinary people in the world than there are businesses, and since there’s nothing that ordinary people don’t want or need, or can’t be persuaded they want or need when it flashes up alluringly on their screens, the money to be made from them is virtually limitless. Together, Schmidt’s four companies are worth more than half a trillion dollars. The technology sector isn’t as big as, say, oil, but it’s growing, as more and more traditional industries – advertising, travel, real estate, used cars, new cars, porn, television, film, music, publishing, news – are subsumed into the digital economy. Schmidt, who as the ex-CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation had learned to take the long view, warned that not all four of his disruptive gang could survive. So – as they all converge from their various beginnings to compete in the same area, the place usually referred to as ‘the cloud’, a place where everything that matters is online – the question is: who will be the first to blink?

If the company that falters is Google, it won’t be because it didn’t see the future coming. Of Schmidt’s four technology juggernauts, Google has always been the most ambitious, and the most committed to getting everything possible onto the internet, its mission being ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. Its ubiquitous search box has changed the way information can be got at to such an extent that ten years after most people first learned of its existence you wouldn’t think of trying to find out anything without typing it into Google first. Searching on Google is automatic, a reflex, just part of what we do. But an insufficiently thought-about fact is that in order to organise the world’s information Google first has to get hold of the stuff. And in the long run ‘the world’s information’ means much more than anyone would ever have imagined it could. It means, of course, the totality of the information contained on the World Wide Web, or the contents of more than a trillion webpages (it was a trillion at the last count, in 2008; now, such a number would be meaningless). But that much goes without saying, since indexing and ranking webpages is where Google began when it got going as a research project at Stanford in 1996, just five years after the web itself was invented. It means – or would mean, if lawyers let Google have its way – the complete contents of every one of the more than 33 million books in the Library of Congress or, if you include slightly varying editions and pamphlets and other ephemera, the contents of the approximately 129,864,880 books published in every recorded language since printing was invented. It means every video uploaded to the public internet, a quantity – if you take the Google-owned YouTube alone – that is increasing at the rate of nearly an hour of video every second.

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]