Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Cost of Google

Seen flowering near the library- Cranesbill Geranium?

For the record, I think life with Google surpasses life with no Google.

But when reading The Case for Books by Robert Darnton last week, I had this tangential thought:

Google is not free. We act as though it is, because it certainly seems free (and fast, and easy), but there is a price nonetheless.

First, when we search using Google, a commercial interest is deciding how information is shown to us. When it comes to finding simple, widely-known facts, such as the capital of the Ukraine for example, this effect is not noticeable. But what about when you want to know something more complicated, such as what happened during the bombing of Dresden in World War II? I know Google is good, but if you start with a lack of knowledge about German history and politics, and ask an American corporation (even one trying not to be evil) for the answer, I'm not sure clarity and truth will always result. I'm not picking on Germany, as the world is rife with examples (continuing the World War II theme, let's go with the bombing of Hiroshima), but inevitably Google's ranking is strongly related to majority opinion, and situations are often more complex than the crisp results page implies. Digressing slightly, I think this is where librarians and other information professionals are still relevant.

Second, I'm sure lots of people, like me, are logged into iGoogle all day, and so our web searches and online activities are neatly tied to our names and other Google services. This is a goldmine! Think of all the data that is precisely harvested with this set-up! In exchange for using Google's services, I blithely give all this information away. Typically I am concerned about protecting my privacy, yet this form of invasiveness hasn't bothered me -- for a really interesting article concerning some of how Google uses our data, as well as other articles about the data generated by networked computers, check out the Feb 27 issue of the Economist.

For a while, I have been wondering whether Google will ever get too big. I worry that what it started out as (web indexer, page ranker, data miner) is fast becoming confused with something else (Truth Teller, oracle, gatekeeper). Google's Director of Research recently explained in Nature what the company has in mind for 2020 -- here's the story filtered through Bill Garrity -- and I'm not sure whether to be soothed or perturbed. Even if we wanted to, I don't think there is a way to stop or slow much of this, but I hope the more we understand, the more we can choose to be willing participants (or not). I hope that is what Google ultimately wants, too.


  1. I've heard Siva Viadhyanathan speak a couple times--he's a fascinating speaker, and one of the points he likes to make is that we aren't Google's *customers* so much as their *products*--that is, Google's business is to get as much of our attention and information as they can so that they can more effectively sell ads. I'm planning to read his book when it comes out, and highly recommend hearing him speak if you can.

    Another thing that's, ah, interesting--Google appears to have access to information about accounts I have that are NOT Google accounts. The "social circle" search results were showing up for me for people I know on Facebook even though I am not connected with them on Google and Google doesn't (or shouldn't) have my Facebook information. But they have Doug's, and they route through his and show me those results. Which really changes how we need to think about privacy as a series of choices.

  2. Correction, it's Vaidhyanathan, not Viadhyanathan.

  3. Thinking of myself as one of Google's products makes me want to mess with the data I generate. Maybe a new language will result. :-)

  4. This is so true! From the information I search, to the blogs I view, the ads I click on, and even the products I buy using my google log in, they have a record of everything. Can't help thinking of this as the set up to a fiction plot--if I introduced a character in the first act who started off saying "Don't be evil," you can guess who the villain of the piece would be!