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Siva Vaidhyanathan on Google

Siva Vaidhyanathan addresses how our assumptions and beliefs are limiting our choices and hurting us.

  • Can Google Do No Evil?, By Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Chronicle Review” (May 1, 2011). [subscription required]

    The problem is that we have been fooled. The very idea that a company can actually pledge something like “Don’t be evil,” and that we believe it, has done us great harm.

Vaidhyanathan, author of The Googlization of Everything, tells a story about how prevalent our either/or thinking is and how that locks us into bad choices:

At the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival, the radio journalist Brian Lehrer asked Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, about the potential for regulation: “Is there ever a point at which Google becomes so big that it’s kind of scary and needs to be regulated as a public utility?” The meeting room filled with laughter before Schmidt could respond. So Lehrer, a knowledgeable and experienced interviewer, continued: “Seriously, literally, is there a point where you need to be regulated as a public utility?”

“Would you prefer to have the government running innovative companies, or would you rather have the private sector running them?” Schmidt responded. “But Eric,” Lehrer interjected, “I would expect a more sophisticated answer from you. As we saw with the banks, it’s not a question of Soviet-style communism or free-market capitalism. Banks needed smart regulation.”

Not so for Internet companies, Schmidt insisted. Google had been–and would always be–“based on a set of values and principles.”

As Siva points out no market, firm, or technology, is truly “unregulated.” And the mission of Google is not to do good, but to make money. And we (libraries in particular) “have outsourced so much of our daily decision making to a single company that we can’t comfortably challenge its role in our lives.”

It would be a lot easier for more people to understand Lehrer’s question and Siva’s analysis if libraries were providing better community-based views of digital information through building digital collections and robust indexing tools. In the absence of public alternatives that select, organize, and preserve digital information, most users accept commercial indexes of the “whole” internet as not just “good enough” but the only imaginable possibility. Siva calls this “Public Failure.” He says this occurs when the public sector has been intentionally dismantled, degraded, or underfinanced. The result? “The public institutions that were supposed to provide … services were prevented from doing so. Private actors [fill] the vacuum, often failing spectacularly and costing the public more than the institutions they displaced.”

If libraries fail to provide community-based, public alternatives soon, that laughter that greeted Lehrer’s question will soon turn into ironic regret as our choices are increasingly limited, our fees raised, and our privacy compromised by commercial interests that may think they are “doing no evil,” but that succeed only in doing commercial good and fail to even try to do any public good.

The whole article is well worth reading.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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