Book Review: Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “Googlization of Everything”

by on March 9, 2011 · 615 comments

In one sense, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s new book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why Should Worry), is exactly what you would expect: an anti-Google screed that predicts a veritable techno-apocalypse will befall us unless we do something to deal with this company that supposedly “rules like Caesar.” (p. xi)  Employing the requisite amount of panic-inducing Chicken Little rhetoric apparently required to sell books these days, Vaidhyanathan tells us that “the stakes could not be higher,” (p. 7) because the “corporate lockdown of culture and technology” (p. xii) is imminent.

After lambasting the company in a breathless fury over the opening 15 pages of the book, Vaidhyanathan assures us that “nothing about this means that Google’s rule is as brutal and dictatorial as Caesar’s. Nor does it mean that we should plot an assassination,” he says. Well, that’s a relief!  Yet, he continues on to argue that Google is sufficiently dangerous that “we should influence—even regulate—search systems actively and intentionally, and thus take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge.” (p. xii)  Why should we do that? Basically, Google is just too damn good at what it does. The company has the audacity to give consumers exactly what they want! “Faith in Google is dangerous because it increases our appetite for goods, services, information, amusement, distraction, and efficiency.” (p. 55) That is problematic, Vaidhyanathan says, because “providing immediate gratification draped in a cloak of corporate benevolence is bad faith.” (p. 55) But this begs the question:  What limiting principle should be put in place to curb our appetites, and who or what should enforce it?

We’re All Just Sheep Being Fed the Illusion of Choice

This gets to Vaidhyanathan’s broader mission in Googlization. His book goes well beyond simply Google-bashing and serves as a fusillade against what he considers really “harmful or dangerous” which is “blind faith in technology and market fundamentalism” (p. xiii)  Unsurprisingly, a classic Marxist false consciousness narrative is at work throughout the book. Vaidhyanathan speaks repeatedly of consumer “blindness” to “false idols and empty promises.” In his chapter on “the Googlization of Us,” for example, consumers are viewed largely as ignorant sheep being led to the cyber-slaughter, tricked by the “smokescreen” of “free” online services and “freedom of choice.” (p. 83)

Indeed, even though he admits that no one forces us to use Google and that consumers are also able to opt-out of most of its services or data collection practices, Vaidhyanathan argues that “such choices mean very little” because “the design of the system rigs it in favor of the interests of the company and against the interests of users.” (p. 84)  But, again, he says this is not just a Google problem. The whole damn digital bourgeois class of modern tech capitalists is out to sedate us using the false hope of consumer choice.  “Celebrating freedom and user autonomy is one of the great rhetorical ploys of the global information economy,” Vaidhyanathan says. “We are conditioned to believe that having more choices—empty through they may be—is the very essence of human freedom. But meaningful freedom implies real control over the conditions of one’s life.”(p. 89, emphasis added)

Vaidhyanathan doesn’t really connect the dots to tell us how Google or any of the other evil capitalist overlords have supposedly conspired to take away such “real control” over the conditions of our lives. Instead, he just implies that any “choice” they offer us are “false,” “empty,” or “irrelevant” choices and that he and other elites can help us see through the web of lies (excuse the pun) and chart a better course.

By the end of chapter 3, Vaidhyanathan cuts loose and tells us exactly what he thinks of the faculties of his fellow humans.  It’s one of the most shocking and insulting paragraphs I have read in any book in recent memory. I’ve offered a little color commentary in the bracketed italics below imagining a different way of expressing what Vaidhyanathan is really saying here:

“Living so long under the dominance of market fundamentalism and techno-fundamentalism, we have come to accept the concept of choice [Choice is overrated, you see] and the exhortation of both the Isley Brothers and Madonna, “Express Yourself,” as essential to living a good life. [We can’t have people freely expressing themselves, now can we?!] So comforted are we by offers of “options” and “settings” made by commercial systems such as Facebook and Google that we neglect the larger issues.  [Again, you people are all just mindless sheep who are easily confused and seduced by “options” and “settings”] We weave these services so firmly and quickly into the fabrics of our daily social and intellectual lives that we neglect to consider what dependence might cost us. [All these free “options” are killing us] And many of us who are technically sophisticated can tread confidentially through the hazards of these systems [me and my Ivory Tower elite buddies are sagacious and see through the lies…], forgetting that the vast majority of people using them are not aware of their pitfalls or the techniques by which users can master them. [… but the rest of you are just dumb as dirt.] Settings only help you if you know enough to care about them. [I’m serious, you common folk are really ignorant.] Defaults matter all the time. Google’s great trick [again, you’re being brainwashed; allow me to show you the light] is to make everyone feel satisfied with the possibility of choice [Have I told you about Marxist false consciousness theory yet?], without actually exercising it to change the system’s default settings.”  (p. 113-4)

How utterly condescending. Sadly, such elitist “people-are-sheep” thinking is all too common in many recent books about the Internet’s impact on society. See my reviews of recent books by Andrew Keen, Mark Helprin, Lee Siegel and even to some extent Jaron Lanier. For more discussion and a critique of this thinking, see my recent book chapter, “The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 1: Saving the Net from Its Detractors.” Simply stated, these critics simply don’t give humanity enough credit and they utterly fail to recognize how humans excel at adapting to change.

The One True Way & The Royal “We”

Regardless, what does Vaidhyanathan want to do to improve the lives of the cyber-sheep since they obviously don’t know how to look out for themselves? In essence, he wants a precautionary principle for technological progress. He believes progress must be carefully planned to ensure that (a) no harms come from it and, (b) that all benefit equally from its riches when it occurs. More specifically, progress needs to be centrally planned through a political process so that we have more of a say about the future.  (More on that royal “we” in a moment.)

Vaidhyanathan bemoans what he calls “public failure” by which he means the absence of political solutions or an over-arching “authority” that sets us on a more enlightened path. “There was never any election to determine the Web’s rulers,” he says.  “No state appointed Google its proxy, its proconsul, or its viceroy. Google just stepped into the void when no other authority was willing or able to make the Web stable, usable, and trustworthy.” (p. 23)

But should there have been an “election to determine the Web’s rulers”? And who is this “other authority” that should have “stepped into the void” and made the Web more “stable, usable, and trustworthy”?  Like so many other would-be cyber-planners, Vaidhyanathan never details what better plan could have saved us from the supposedly tyranny of the marketplace. We’re simply told that someone or something could have done it better.  Web search could have been better. Digitized book archiving could have been done better. Online news could have been done better.  And so on.

Because Google has touched each of these areas, Vaidhyanathan makes the company his scapegoat for all that is supposedly wrong in the modern digital world. But the “Googlization” of which he speaks transcends one company and refers more generally to any and all private, market-based responses to the challenges of the Information Age. Again, it is the fact that such market processes are so messy and uneven that has Vaidhyanathan so incensed. How could we — and his royal we inevitably refers to the political or academic elites who supposedly should have been looking out for us — have allowed this process to unfold without a more sensible plan?

The Centralization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)

In terms of longer-term solutions, Vaidhyanathan doesn’t shy away from using a term that most other critics shy away from: centralization. Although he is short on details about whom the technocratic vanguard will be that will lead the effort to take back the reins of power, he’s at least got a name for it and plan of action.  Vaidhyanathan calls for the creation of “The Human Knowledge Project” to “identify a series of policy challenges, infrastructure needs, philosophical insights, and technological challenges with a single realizable goal in mind: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” (p. 204-5)

Why do we need such a Politburo Project when countless other entities, including Google, are working spontaneously to accomplish the same goal through diffuse efforts? Because, Vaidhyanathan says, “it’s better to have these things argued in a deliberative forum than decided according to the whims of market forces, technological imperatives, and secretive contracts.” (p. 205) But Vaidhyanathan’s call for a centralized vision and plan of action also comes down to his fundamental distrust of market processes in knowledge and his over-arching faith in the wisdom of the technocratic elite to chart a more sensible path forward. “It’s more important to do it right than to do it fast.  It’s more important to have knowledge sources that will work one hundred years from now than to have a collection of poor images that we can see next week.” (p. 204)

From these statements we can obviously deduce that Vaidhyanathan doesn’t much believe in the power of markets, but it’s equally clear he doesn’t really seem to understand them. Markets are simply learning and discovery processes. They are ongoing experiments. And experiments can be messy. They can be turbulent. They can be uneven. But the process of experimentation and discovery has valuable benefits that cannot be centrally planned or divined by a technocratic elite preemptively.

Vaidhyanathan doesn’t like that fact very much. He is a believer in the proverbial “better path” or One True Way.  Yet, when Vaidhyanathan says “it’s more important to do it right,” the operational assumption is that we already know what “it” is and how to do it “right.” And when he suggests “it’s more important to have knowledge sources that will work one hundred years from now,” it suggest that somewhere out there a more enlightened path exists and that he and some other elites in the Human Knowledge Project apparently possess a map to guide us to it.

This is the height of hubris. There is no way in hell any of us could know which “knowledge sources” will work one hundred years from now or even 10 years from now, for that matter. That is precisely where markets come in. Organic, bottom-up, unplanned experimentation is valuable precisely because of the limitations of human knowledge and planning.  Wikipedia, for example, isn’t the product a highly planned, centralized vision set forth by some massive information bureaucracy. I doubt a “Human Knowledge Project” could have designed such a thing from scratch 10 years ago. Instead, they would have likely started with Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta as models and then spent billions trying to figure out how to make them better.

Worse yet, Vaidhyanathan treats technological progress as a zero-sum game. He says, for example, that “it’s more important to link poor children in underdeveloped regions with knowledge than to quicken the pace of access for those of us who already live among more information than we could possibly use.” (p. 204) Substitute the word “money” for “knowledge/information” in the above passage and you’ll discover the typical zero-sum thinking behind much global development thinking today.  The traditional reasoning: Some of us are lucky enough to have money or resources and that means we must be depriving others of them. That’s faulty logic, of course. Simply because one region or economy prospers it does not mean others must suffer. The same goes for information policy. We can do more to aid the poor and unconnected in underdeveloped regions without depriving information-rich countries and peoples the benefits of more and better services. After all, who is Vaidhyanathan to say that we already have “more information than we could possibly use”? Is there a meter running on how much information is too much for us?

The Unconstrained Vision, Once Again

The scope of centralized planning that Vaidhyanathan envisions the Human Knowledge Project undertaking is ambitious to say the least. In the abstract, he says: “The post-Google agenda of the Human Knowledge Project would be committed to outlining the values and processes necessary to establish and preserve a truly universal, fundamentally democratic global knowledge ecosystem and public sphere.” (p. 206) More concretely:

“The Human Knowledge Project would consider questions of organization and distribution at every level: the network, the hardware, the software, the protocols, the laws, the staff, the administrators, the physical space (libraries), the formats for discrete works, the formats for reference works such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, the formats for emerging collaborative works, and the spaces to facilitate collaboration and creativity.” (p. 206-7)

Needless to say, there isn’t much that this veritable Ministry of Information wouldn’t be considering or planning.  Vaidhyanathan repeats, however, that it would constitute “public failure” if we failed to institute such a plan for the future.

Of course, there’s another definition of “public failure” that Vaidhyanathan never bothers considering. It’s the “public failure” identified by public choice economists and political scientists who have meticulously documented the myriad ways in which politics and political processes fail to achieve the idealistic “public interest” goals of set forth by Ivory Tower elites.  For example, Vaidhyanathan never bothers considering how expanded the horizons of state power in the ways he wishes might become an open invitation for even more of the corporate shenanigans he despises.  After all, history teaches us that regulatory capture is all too real.

But Vaidhyanathan doesn’t have much time for such meddlesome details.  He’s too busy trying to save the world. Vaidhyanathan is a near perfect exponent of what political scientist Thomas Sowell once labeled “the unconstrained vision.”  A long line of thinkers—Plato, Rousseau, Voltaire, Robert Owen, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Dewey, John Rawls—have argued that man is inherently unconstrained and that society is perfectible; it’s just a matter of trying hard enough. In this vision, passion for, and pursuit of, noble ideals trumps all. Human reason has boundless potential.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, this crowd believes that order and justice derives from smart planning, often from the top-down. Elites are expected to make smart social and economic interventions to serve some amorphous “public interest.” Smart solutions and good intentions matter most and there’s little concern about costs or unintended consequences of political action. Finally, desired outcomes are pre-scripted and distributive or “patterned” justice is key. Because markets cannot ensure the precise results they desire, they must be superseded by centralized planning and patterned, equal outcomes.

Of course, back in the real world, the rank hubris of the unconstrained mindset conflicts violently with economic and cultural realities at every juncture. As Friedrich von Hayek taught us long ago, “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.” It’s a lesson that many countries and cultures have learned at great expense, but one that utopians like Vaidhyanathan still ignore.

More generally, Vaidhyanathan is trapped in what Virginia Postrel labeled the “stasis mentality” in her 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies. The stasis crowd is prone to take short-term snapshots of the world around us at any given time and extrapolate only the worst from it. “It overvalues the tastes of an articulate elite, compares the real world of trade-offs to fantasies of utopia, omits important details and connections, and confuses temporary growing pains with permanent catastrophes,” Postrel noted.  This mindset is precisely what economist Israel Kirzner had in mind when warned in of “the shortsightedness of those who, not recognizing the open-ended character of entrepreneurial discovery, repeatedly fall into the trap of forecasting the future against the background of today’s expectations rather than against the unknowable background of tomorrow’s discoveries.”

This insidious, short-sighted, overly pessimistic worldview is contradicted at almost every juncture today by the fact that—at least technologically speaking—things are getting better all the time. There’s never been a period in human history when we’ve had access to more technology, more information, more services, more of just about everything. While we humans have wallowed in information poverty for the vast majority of our existence, we now live in a world of unprecedented information abundance and cultural richness.

Critics like Siva Vaidhyanathan will, no doubt, persist in their claims that there is “a better path,” but the path we’re on right now isn’t looking so bad and does not require the radical prescriptions he and others call for. Moreover, the alternative vision doesn’t begin with the insulting presumption that humans are basically just mindless sheep who can’t look out for themselves.


[To hear Vaidhyanathan in his own words, check out his Surprisingly Free podcast conversation with Jerry Brito this week as well as the webpage for his book.]

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