rev. March 12, 1011 by pb

A Review of "The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry)" by Siva Vaidhyanathan

From the title I infer that we should worry about Google - not just Google but bloggers and Wikipedia and others. Vaidhyanathan asks: "What is the future of expertise in an age dominated by Google, bloggers, and Wikipedia?" (GE, p. 8) Strange question. My own answer is: bright, very bright. 1. Bloggers can share their particular expertise such as it might be, sometimes extremely high. 2. An instant discussion can be initiated and preserved in written form, sometimes awful, sometimes wonderful. 3. Google will make sure the record can be found, and 4. Wikipedia will ground everything on a baseline of fact. Does that make me a triumphalist, a techno-fundamentalist? Is that hubris? Is that a deadly sin? Why are there so many Cassandras front and center in the media and only one Kurzweil laboring in relative obscurity?

There are many "anti" perspectives. Sometimes they agglomerate. For example, in Europe it is fashionable to be anti-American and anti-global. This can lead to being anti-Google, just by the association of Google with all sorts of things global and American. It may not be possible to poke a stick at America, but it is possible to win a lawsuit for some infringement, real or imagined, of Google. Some comical examples abound such as the retrieval of unfavorable stories from electronic archives of a newspaper being blamed on Google and not on the newspaper in question. Of course, the anti-perspective does not preclude using Google or spamming Google or vacationing in America or watching American movies, it just blocks any positive thinking, speaking and writing about either. Neither does being anti-global preclude exporting fiercely. There is no dearth of evidence supporting the anti-positions that can be brought forth in instant, self-evident, well practiced arguments. Counter arguments such as, but Google and Google Book Search has really helped my work tremendously, seem weak compared to the dire consequences that the continued existence of Google and also of America in its current form pose for the European socialist paradise. The argument that Google must be stopped because it is too good would even make European heads swim.

In America, the anti-forces are concentrated more on technology, business and social justice (pardon any interests I may have omitted). Agglomerations can be formed that are against corporations, fast-food and Google - or perhaps, educational technology, fast-food, the super-rich and Google. Fortunately, the broad mainstream, the ordinary citizen has a pragmatic view of the world and takes what the world gives to make a path through it. If twitter enables gossip and bullying among teen-agers and office workers, then twitter it is. Banning twitter will not do away with gossip or bullying; banning Twitter will not make average kids doing average kid things into science whizzes. There have always been methods of communicating a base-line average thought content, be it at the fountain fetching water or at the inn drinking stoutly - news has always traveled fast; with twitter it just travels even faster. That does not make people smarter or more stupid today because of electronics than they might have been 200 years ago without electronics. The same goes for Google.

Yet, there is also an acceleration of base-line above average thought content, only a small step above gossip. I no longer have to get up, put on my coat, and go to the library, to get pieces of information necessary for my work - for example, the original texts of the quote "knowledge is power." I can get the original in Latin, the entire text of the essay, translations from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, several biographies of the author of various length and quality, as well as a dozen discussions of the quote - in minutes without leaving my desk. I can also get a picture of the mosaic from the Library of Congress. Perhaps the great trap is that sources are made too easily available to a non-expert as I am.

Personally, the gossip of twitter does not concern me, nor does the pornography on the web, nor do blog crashers who hawk running shoes, nor do bloggers who serially vent inappropriately. That is not entirely true, it does concern me, but not enough to jettison my own electronic tools and start dipping into an ink-well. There may be a fundamental problem of public, media imprimatured rhetoric which privileges scenarios of dire consequences over the steady work done at computers all over the world. (Google: A. Stifter's concept: "Das sanfte Gesetz" tr. "The gentle law" which points to the steady daily activity of life punctuated only briefly and rarely by cataclysmic storms.)

There is some semblance of balance in Vaidhyanathan's critique that may make the book appear reasonable and objective to the untrained eye. An oral delivery technique with copious handwaving and in some need of fluency shaping therapy gives an impression of reasonable concern over ubiquitous websearching technologies. Yet, there is a strong undercurrent of pessimism about the web, most prominently about Google, about corporations, about searching technology and other manifestations of educational technology in today's wired world. Alas, that undercurrent has swept Vaidhyanathan far out to sea toward a fantastic Pharonic vision of a "grand global project" (excluding Google and the private sector I presume) that we "could have" done, even "should have" done and at the very least "might have" done, had Google, Wiki, Amazon and uncounted thousands not already gotten well started with it. Aside: the project would be funded by "concerned governments and the best national libraries" (GE, p. 203), at some point in the near to distant future I presume; please, stop making me laugh so hard.

But I am skipping ahead. Vaidhyanathan shares the evolution of his thought: "[after initial enthusiasm] ... in the early part of this century, my mood soured and my enthusiasm waned ... my great hopes ... corrupted by inadequate security ... and the attempts at a corporate lockdown of culture and technology." (GE, p. xii)

The enumeration of reasons for his disenchantment goes on for a few more sentences. We are presented with a simple-minded dualism: liberty and democracy vs. "blind faith in technology" and "market fundamentalism." Vaidhyanathan is most eloquent in his critique of Google in terms of the latter two points and only grudgingly acknowledging Google's contribution to the first two. Oh, there is also techno-fundamentalism, which covers anyone who hopes for or works on technological solutions to our myriad problems.

It has occurred to me that Vaidhyanathan may be speaking primarily to the generation of students who have not known a world without Google. For them Google may have a similar position that World Book and the Britannica had for me in High School. But in any case, my faith in the Britannica then is not analogous to what Google and Wiki do for me today. I still decide whether what Google shows me is useful or not. I still check Wiki references sometimes, but my trust level is high. Nothing of what I read has been written by Google. The Google-effect is really greatly exaggerated. To those of us who have seen the evolution of non-electronic resources to electronic resources, this book has little to offer. Of course that still leaves many panel discussions, talk shows and radio.

In fact, it is an awfully silly book that depends on the drumbeat of the word "Googlization" throughout the text to drive the reader single-mindedly from one somewhat dire scenario to the next.

Vaidhyanathan uses several religious metaphors of omnipotence, omnipresence and blind faith, and he intimates a gospel of Google in order to paint Google as a sort of God, both Christian and totemic to which we, all of us who blog, use Wiki and Google have given our unquestioned allegiance. Vaidhyanathan's quest, his calling, his crusade, his mission is to turn us away from this despotic graven image, back towards the values that made this country great, the rugged individualism exemplified by the picture painted by Norman Rockwell of a student dipping a pony-tail into an ink-well.

I find this a rather partisan book, made more objectionable by the fact that sections of the book have been part of his quest, paraded on the lecture circuit for the last couple of years, and by a marketing campaign that would be the envy of any romance novelist, metaphorically speaking.

I am new to cultural history - it seems to be a rather glib form of history that draws on contemporary commonplaces and is cultural only in the sense that everything is cultural. Thus in a section on lamenting the coming of the automobile, Vaidhyanathan writes that Elvis' warning that "Fools rush in" has unfortunately come too late to save us from the horseless carriage. Elvis, as everyone knows was the proud owner of as many cars (remember Pink Cadillac) as cowboy boots. Aside from the hilarious suggestion that Elvis was a proto-environmentalist, one should really give the whole line of the song: "Wise men say only fools rush in [...]." The wise man in question was Alexander Pope who was enumerating the sins of literary critics; he might as well have been writing about cultural historians spinning the now.

I have taken the trouble to buy and download Vaidhyanathan's cautionary tale about Google to my Kindle, not because I feel the need to be cautioned about Google, or about cars or planes or about corporations or technology or about modernity in general - but rather by a quote in a review that had picked out one of the many sentences of Vaidhyanathan's book, a sentence which brings Google into the role of trying to be a university. [I should have remembered our entirely non-philological translation of "caveat emptor" when we were kids. We did not know about "merda taurorum," probably a recent coinage coming from the interest in the concept in the 1980's.]

"Google is an example of a stunningly successful firm behaving as much like a university as it can afford to." (GE, 187)

The quote comes from a lengthy bit of cultural history starting with a rather cheeky definition of "learning" that would send most who are not "cultural historians" up the wall, and ends with the dire effects of Googlization on everyone in the university. This sub-chapter, "The Googlization of Higher Education," does go deeply into the relation of Google, its founders and co-workers and universities. I should issue a warning; most of the criticism of Google which is designed to raise red flags in the reader merely raises approval and admiration in this reader.

Strangely, Jeff Jarvis and some quotes of his about higher education have to be whipped as a proxy for Google to start. Perhaps the curvy walls around the UVA Quad, designed by Jefferson, visionary extraordinary, encourage Vaidhyanathan to trample on modern excitable visionaries postulating dramatic reforms in education. No doubt, he acts in the interest of the longevity of that red-brick institution of learning that has experienced many dramatic renewals, not the least, hiring Professor V.

Then come the pages on PageRank which make no mention of the math behind the concept and the concomitant efforts to master and extend these techniques by CS Departments around the world - or even about the efforts to master the vast quantities of text in education, business and government, aside from reading each word, remembering as much as possible and taking really good notes. The implication is that everything would function just fine, better even, without text mining, a science practiced not only by Google.

Vaidhyanathan shows us several examples of queries he has made in Google in order to question the ranking of what comes first, second or whatever else Google may have dredged up down the line and what the sinister motivation could be. The search term "jew," for example, provides grist for the mill. This is a fundamental error of perspective. Google queries should be honest attempts at finding something out. The cyber organism requires that in order to function properly. No, no, no, [finger wagging] the placing of queries into Google for provocation is not acceptable practice. One should really want some bit of information in context of some actual work or interest: for example, information about Judaism. One should also imagine, before making the query, how one would get at the information without using the internet, that is to say, without using Google or something similarly googlesque. The only legitimate reaction to the resulting hit list is to ask: do I have a plausible answer? Should the answer be no, one must start over with modified search terms.

There is much systematic academic work ongoing to test all sorts of search algorithms and indexing schemes - generally there are no user serviceable parts and no chance to open the box. One can write to Google, but above all, one should develop virtuosity in using the search terms in one's field of research. There are only a small set of terms applicable for each query; generally they produce acceptable results. Once that list is displayed, at that point, my interest in Google is gone. What remains is a series of web resources that have to be evaluated on their own integrity and my knowledge of web sources.

One must remember that Google dips into the web which includes all sorts of irrelevant and unsavory and silly sites; it picks through all the junk and gunk and generally delivers usable web sources, for example, it separates the Polish Vodka Chopin from the composer of the same name. Regular use will yield a relatively small group of recurring information sites. Since I am not yet entirely daft, I can be expected to pick through one or two pages of sources. I would trust most honest web searchers to look through several sites. The discussion of the first and second ranking is a non-starter in academic queries.

Google is a boon for those who are doing intellectual work of all kinds. Google is portrayed as a bane by anti-technologists who are seeking provocative illustrations of decay of all kinds - actually, Google is a boon for them as well. I cannot really definitively place Vaidhyanathan on that scale; it may just be a minor irritation over the success of Google, or of all the loose talk about Google, that has blown up into an anti-Google media crusade.

I shall take a run at the book, although I am not in the habit of reading contemporary culturally historical things thoroughly. I may have to do this book at between 8x and 20x - as I do with bad movies - with my apologies to books and movies in general. The wisdom of this practice may dawn upon reflection. The contemporary is competing with a past that has been winnowed by generations; when the contemporary focuses on the present, the chances of surviving winnowing are slight. I shall concentrate on Vaidhyanathan's treatment of Google Book Search since I have spent some time myself writing on the subject.

The beginning is not propitious. Vaidhyanathan dips into a discussion in the history of philosophy to take sides in the interpretation of Francis Bacon's (Not to be confused with Roger Bacon, 13c., champion of scientific education) parenthetical statement "(Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est)" (from: Sacred Meditations, 1597) - in short - knowledge is power. The impetus is Gaukroger whose work on Hobbes is not universally acclaimed. In a nonce Vaidhyanathan embroiders and very quickly arrives at a conclusion: quoth Vaidhyanathan - "Knowledge is an instrument of the powerful." (GE., p. 149) From there, a logical "salto mortale" and he has arrived at an intended premise for his book: "The powerful always have the ways and means to use knowledge toward their own ends." (Ibid.) Its all a bit of a muddle.

I will gladly admit that my pitiful Latin is not good enough to appreciate the subtle difference between the Bacon quote and the "scientia propter potentiam" of Hobbes, or even to read the Bacon Meditation with understanding, or actually to read it in English, which is actually beside the point, the sentence has gotten a life of its own, starting at least with Hobbes, if not with Bacon.

I should only add that at Bacon's time (16-17c) "heresy" was not to be trifled with for a debt-ridden barrister for whom the path to Lord Chancellor could not have been predicted. The formulation is circumspect, couched in the legalese of the time. Hidden agendas can only be suspected in a prose style producing sentences that may have many, even contradictory meanings. Does one look at scripture, or does one look at creation? Creation could certainly not be denied in the 16th c., it was the chief example of the power of God, but looking at specific creations too closely could open all sorts of doors into the unknown of secular speculations.

Of the three types of heresies, the last, as I can only imagine from my tentative parsing the Elizabethan prose, is to abridge the power of God in the human realm. It seems that some thought God may not care about certain sinful activities and one could not claim to have them have been predestined by God; else God would have made evil, perish the thought and the thinker of that thought. However, in Bacon's remedy, there might be some suspicion of an inkling for a basis of the separation of the study of the power of God through scripture, from the study of the power of God through the study of God's creation on earth. So much I have gleaned from various translations. Thank you Google Books.

In any case, knowledge is a power of God in this case. God must be omniscient. Of course there can be no author other than God - to claim that would mean a diminishment of the power of God. So, as I understand it, "God is not author of evil, not because he is not author, but because not as of evil." (Montagu tr., Of Heresies, Philadelphia, 1854). The use of the term "knowledge" is incidental and peripheral in this essay; the prominence of the quote and its relation to science, method and education derives from other works of Bacon. [Curious, Google is not author, only searcher and finder of authors and also "not as of" evil, they say.]

While the interpretation of the sentence can certainly be turned in a class-warfare manner, or in a paranoid delusional manner - there is a broad mainstream that interprets it as a statement about the power of science and gives Bacon an honored place for his writings after his disgrace, e.g. "The Great Instauration" where lack of knowledge is equated with mischief. The varied reception of the "knowledge" quote includes affixing it in a mosaic in the arcade of the Library of Congress; perhaps "ignorance is mischief" would have been clearer.

The Hobbesian version of the quote: "The end of knowledge is power..." (Elementorum Philosophiae, De Corpore, 1654) is equally imbedded in a discussion difficult to generalize into politics from the actual extant text. It is preceded by a section on the use of geometric techniques to aid the senses to discern a true circle, one of the harmles bits of popular psychologization of Geometry that raised so many hackles in his time. By "power" Hobbes seems to be referring to the power of humans to make life easier in a world of thought where geometry has a central place that has proven very useful in the physical world. Europeans, who have it are juxtaposed to the non-Europeans, no need to name names, who have it not. The elements of the sentence of the quote, "Knowledge," "the use of theorems," and "speculation" are to be used for "power," "problem construction," and "action" respectively. In this case "action" means measuring things, moving large things, building large things, navigation, making gadgets, and charting the heavens. Hobbes, in this instance is describing the power of technology, an early techno-fundamentalist I fear.

As said, I recuse myself for lack of detailed knowledge, not wanting to set even more mischief into the world than I have just done, but I will assert the right to question the rigors of Cultural History of the contemporary demi-decade. For me it was merely an excercise just how far a few mouse clicks could take me, my apologies to the experts. Let me return to the text.

So here is the agenda of a cultural historian which appears to be to defend the disenfranchised from the powerful. (GE., p. 149) Applause! Applause for the able assistance of Bacon and Hobbes and Gaukroger.

Where could one possibly go from here? "Much of human knowledge exists in the form of long arrays of texts, what we still call books." (GE, p. 150) The awkwardness of the sentence makes interpretation unnecessarily problematic. Are arrays @text ^(0-n) the elements of the array @library? Are we talking about files or are we talking about physical books. And what is it with the "what?" LA copy editing? Vaidhyanathan grants "new methods" but asserts that "...most of the best expressions of deep human thinking still rest on paper, bound with glue, nestled and protected by cloth covers, on the shelves of libraries around the world." (GE, ibid.) That is clearly not true: 1. Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare all electronic in multiple copies, multiple projects, 2. the important books and MSS before 1400, all electronic, 3. Bacon, the main titles in Gutenberg, the Latin and translations, including the Meditations in Google Books, 4. Hobbes, ditto 5. Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, ditto ... I won't go on. Generally, the first tier has been done. Vaidhyanathan must know that.

Then comes the building and whacking of a straw person: "...extend knowledge, judge utility and truth of knowledge, connect the most people to the best knowledge..." (GE, ibid.)

In an extremely annoying use of the editorial "we" and "us" Vaidhyanathan asserts that Google proposes to have answers to those questions and that "we" [read: Vaidhyanathan] shall judge Google's answers.

First another public whipping, this time of Kevin Kelly, a "devil take the hindermost" visionary with visions in the 400 page category. Vaidhyanathan takes Kelly to task for regarding copyright as a nuisance, which is funny in context.

On it goes to a history of Google Books spun away from any exuberant visionaries. Conclusion: "Google has failed to live up to any of the exaggerated claims that its early proponents have made for it." (GE, p. 152) Personally, I can live with not meeting exaggerated claims; this is obviously a problem for someone who is focused on the discussion and not on the applications in ubiquitous use that have exceeded the expectations of designers and users.

Vaidhyanathan goes on to sketch out the worst-case scenario for Google Books - in his view the best case - the judge Chin rejects the settlement, presumably Google would be guilty of copyright infringement, presumably the files would be erased and the world made safe for the "fifty year grand global project by concerned governments." I am too old to wait. The bird in my hand is better than the marvelous birds of concerned governments in the bushes.

I think I shall quit reading here. A scan of the rest of the chapter reveals that Vaidhyanathan has thoroughly immersed himself in the legal issues; one should ask, if you cannot trust a lawyer you have not paid 50,000 dollars, would you trust a cultural historian pretending to be a lawyer? Spin makes me dizzy.

I will let Judge Chin decide. I hope in any case that the out-of-copyright books will be saved from destruction. As a best case, I hope to get inexpensive electronic copies of everything but the most recent publications, which I hope to buy at an e-discount from Amazon for my Kindle.

I should summarize. Vaidhyanathan has gathered up some considerable animus towards Google. He even draws on Dante's enumeration of the seven deadly sins; I would have picked a more theological source, e.g. the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Vaidhyanathan maintains that Google is guilty of all seven, in jest he says. Generally, the seven deadly sins are not that funny, reading Dante should make that clear, and bantering with all seven can be done only with Catholic theology since there hardly will be rioting in the streets of Vatican city or burnt tires in the streets of South Bend or calls for revenge. There is no provision in political correctness for the Catholic Church or for Google. I am not sure Vaidhyanathan appreciates either adequately, or the iconic significance of S1 through S10, including apathy, despair, and vainglory.

This animus has not been tempered, or only slightly tempered by his own use of Google - or Wiki - or blogging. In his sophomoric discussion of "semantic search," Vaidhyanathan has found a champion against PageRank. This topic is not yet ready for Cultural History. Actually, Cultural History is the unready one. While dropping several irrelevant names, the goal is to point the finger at Google, Yahoo and MS for hoarding texts. (Google "large corpus linguistics".) As an antidote to this discussion I might suggest a series of Wiki entries on Textmining, PageRank, Analytics, semantic search, Bayes and Markov - follow the links or get one of many textbooks on the subject.

An instructive example of the problem is another illustration Vaidhyanathan presents of Google use. He types in: "What is the capital of Norway" [enter]. Up come 20 pages of links maintaining that Oslo is the capital of Norway. Yet Vaidhyanathan will not let well enough alone. He claims this to be a demonstration of the fact that PageRank is no longer flat and democratic, which means it is no longer stupid or useless. (If it were "flat" one would get all texts with the sentence: "What is the capital of Norway?" - democratic in an abjectly trivial use of the concept). Of course there are instances when one may want to find a quote - hint: use quotation marks.

I don't really get it. Semantic analysis of queries may be useful for computers playing "Jeopardy," but I am not convinced it is necessary for humans. Since the time of the humanists and before, creating indicies and doing index lookup has been the main query technique for text. In many ways, Google has taught me to use resources that I would never have found had I stayed exclusively with my training and experience using non-electronic sources in research libraries, also largely index lookup. It was and continues to be learning by doing.

Semantic analysis of queries may be a promising new field - it has not yet reached a position of competion to index lookup. One could argue that parsing and analysis of query sentences is little more than a front end for index lookup, training wheels for those unable to deal with the abstraction of keywords. Once the query has been parsed, index lookup using an index large enough to cover all topics and the search terms derived from the query sentence will still have to be done. One should really consider what a magnificent piece of work the Google index is. Size matters.

Most of us don't use whole sentences to query Google. Three to four keywords generally bring a desired result; if not, the keywords can be exchanged with others till a plausible hit list emerges.

Being taken to WorldNet for an English definition is not unlike being taken to the Driskill Grill for dinner, or to a Paul Bocuse or to the Seehotel Winkler. (This can be goggled). I would want my search engine to do that, to take me to the best places. WorldNet - "Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are organized into synonym sets, each representing one underlying lexical concept" - is available as a free download for anyone wanting to get started in linguistic programming. I am sure the Google people will have a good laugh about that one. Personally, I was horrified.

In conclusion, I must admit that I cannot do a close reading of this book. I have done that with essays of Professors Darnton and Grafton because I had the confidence in their intellectual work and merely disagreed with their critique of Google and other electronic manifestations in the humanities. It is important for renowned humanities scholars to embrace technology to develop ever better electronic treatments of all areas of the humanities. The learned should be encouraged.

In this case the connection of GE and my brain was of narrow bandwidth and full of noise. I can only juxtapose the "Googlization of Everything..." with my own self-published "Google Book Search and Its Critics" written in ignorance of Vaidhyanathan quest. In any case, I don't think I would have included his articles in my discussion. However, I would suggest contacting Michael Moore for a quote on the screen rights; something along the lines of the "Eggplant that ate Chicago" with Google cast as the eggplant. I want a percentage.

Comments to