Back in the third century BC, the largest and most significant library in the world was in Alexandria, Egypt. Its mission was to hold all the written knowledge of the known world, and so scribes from this library were regularly sent out to every other identified information repository to borrow, copy and return (well, most of the time) every ‘book,’ (mostly papyrus scrolls) in existence. We don’t know the precise extent of the collection, but there is no doubt that its value was essentially priceless.
And then the library was destroyed. The circumstances of the destruction are unclear—fire and religious rivalries had a lot to do with it—but by the birth of Jesus Christ, the library was no more. The irretrievable loss of public knowledge was incalculable.
In those days, access to knowledge was limited and expensive; today such access is ubiquitous and free, via the World Wide Web.
Except that there’s this singular middleman. A corporate entity actually, called Google, that acts as a nearly monopolistic conduit for all today’s abundant information. As Siva Vaidhyanatha has pointed out in his recent book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), the extent of Google’s domination of the Web is such that, “Google is on the verge of becoming indistinguishable from the Web itself.”
The corporation operates in excess of one million servers in various data centers spread across the planet, processing more than a billion search requests every day. And then there are Google’s other services: email (Gmail), office software (Google Drive), blog hosting (Blogger), social networking (Google+ and Orkut), VoIP (Google Voice), online payment (Google Checkout), Web browsing (Chrome), ebooks (Google Books), mobile (Android), online video (YouTube), and real world navigation (Google Maps, Street View, Google Earth). There’s more.
It’s a unique and amazing situation. As Vaidhyanathan adds, “The scope of Google’s mission sets it apart from any company that has ever existed in any medium.” Its leaders blithely assure us that Google will always operate consistent with its unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil,” but it’s difficult to imagine how we should accept this assurance without some degree of caution. The company is only about 17 years old, and every entity in this world, big and small, is subject to constant change.
Google is less dominant in Asia and Russia, with about 40% of the search market, but in places like Europe, North America and much of South America, Google controls fully 90 to 95% of Web search traffic. For most of us, this gigantic private utility has taken over the most powerful communication, commercial and information medium in the world, and is now telling us, ‘Not to worry; we’re in control but we’re friendly.’ Well, maybe, but it behooves all of us to ask, ‘Who exactly appointed you Czar?’
For one thing, as many of us know, Google is not neutral in its search function; a search for “globalization” in Argentina does not deliver the same results as a search for the same term in the U.K. Google is now making decisions on our behalf as to what search results we actually want to see. It does this based upon its ability to mine our online data. Why does Google do this? Because that data is also valuable to advertisers. Perhaps the most important point Vaidhyanathan makes in his book is that Google is not at its core a search engine company; its core business is advertising.
You might argue this is win-win. Google makes money (lots and lots of it); we get a remarkably effective, personalized service. At least we usually don’t have to wait for the advertising to conclude, as we do on TV, before we can continue our use of the medium.
Vaidhyanathan argues in his book for creation of what he calls the Human Knowledge Project (akin to the Human Genome Project). This would deliver an “information ecosystem” that would supplant and outlive Google—essentially a global electronic network of public libraries that would be universally accessible and forever within the communal domain.
It’s an idea worthy of consideration, because, once again, we seem to be vulnerable to the loss or change of a single, monopolistic source of information. As with the Alexandria library, there are too many eggs in Google’s basket.