Google eyes

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Siva Vaidhyanathan, 44, is a media studies professor at UVA who has appeared on “The Daily Show” and is a frequent contributor to NPR, Salon and The New York Times Magazine, among others. Though a self-admitted avid Google user—when I first tried to reach him, I was redirected to his Google Voice mail—he’s concerned that Google may not be the benevolent and objective wonder-tool we’d all like to think it is. His new book, The Googlization of Everything, is in stores now. He’ll be speaking about it at 4pm on March 18 at the UVA Bookstore as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.

What’s wrong with “Googlization”?

 

My issue is with our dependence on it. I’m not sure Google is making us dumber. I think we’re making Google smarter. We’re constantly feeding Google information that helps it focus ads and results on what we already care about. Google is now able to predict what we’re looking for, almost to the point of reading our minds. That’s really fabulous for shopping, but it’s not so great for learning. Google limits our fields of vision by filtering out things that might surprise or disrupt or disturb us.

Do you think it’s problematic that Google gets its revenue from ads?

Not necessarily. I want Google to make money and do cool things, but we have to understand, we’re not Google’s customers. We are Google’s product. We are what Google sells to advertisers. Google is never working in our interest. Google is always working in its own interest. So we shouldn’t be surprised when those interests diverge. The moment we fall for the sweet talk of corporate social responsibility, that’s when we end up in trouble. In five years, Google could be close to broke and yet still have this powerful position in our information ecosystem—in a position to really abuse its power. That’s lesson number one: be cynical and be wary. Put no religious faith in any company, especially Google.

What’s your take on UVA’s involvement in the Google Books project?

Libraries did not ensure quality standards of the scans or a good search system. I’d like to see us actually pursue what I call a human knowledge project over the next 50 years. But what Google’s doing is nothing close to that. Still, my criticisms are withheld for the public institutions that didn’t defend the public interest.

UVA Media Studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan says he enjoys using Google more than the average person, “because I’ve looked behind the curtain.”

And that includes the University of Virginia. Libraries were so happy to have a big, rich company take over the digitization process that they jumped at the opportunity. They saw this as a cheap and easy way to have somebody else foot the tab, but ultimately what we’re getting isn’t a bigger, better library. It’s a huge used bookstore. With a lot of tattered pages.

I still think Google holds itself to some pretty high standards. I just don’t think we should trust in that forever. Companies are companies and public institutions are public institutions. We shouldn’t conflate those two, and we should respect both of them. By respect, I mean respect like you respect a wolf.

What do you like about Google?

I think I enjoy using Google more than the average person, because I’ve looked behind the curtain. We should just be in awe of the thing—and I am. We expect every technology to be so cool that within days we sort of fold it into our expectations and our behavior. Google’s only been around for a short period of time. Just yesterday we didn’t have this, and yet we lived well. When you recognize that, maybe you can figure out ways to make it work for you even better.

Ever Google yourself?

I have to! I’m always trying to figure out if people are writing about me. I guess we all do. So far, Google has not downgraded me. I have to give them much respect for being above it all.

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