Thursday, March 11, 2010
The Cost of Google
For the record, I think life with Google surpasses life with no Google.
But when reading The Case for Books by Robert Darnton last week, I had this tangential thought:
Google is not free. We act as though it is, because it certainly seems free (and fast, and easy), but there is a price nonetheless.
First, when we search using Google, a commercial interest is deciding how information is shown to us. When it comes to finding simple, widely-known facts, such as the capital of the Ukraine for example, this effect is not noticeable. But what about when you want to know something more complicated, such as what happened during the bombing of Dresden in World War II? I know Google is good, but if you start with a lack of knowledge about German history and politics, and ask an American corporation (even one trying not to be evil) for the answer, I'm not sure clarity and truth will always result. I'm not picking on Germany, as the world is rife with examples (continuing the World War II theme, let's go with the bombing of Hiroshima), but inevitably Google's ranking is strongly related to majority opinion, and situations are often more complex than the crisp results page implies. Digressing slightly, I think this is where librarians and other information professionals are still relevant.
Second, I'm sure lots of people, like me, are logged into iGoogle all day, and so our web searches and online activities are neatly tied to our names and other Google services. This is a goldmine! Think of all the data that is precisely harvested with this set-up! In exchange for using Google's services, I blithely give all this information away. Typically I am concerned about protecting my privacy, yet this form of invasiveness hasn't bothered me -- for a really interesting article concerning some of how Google uses our data, as well as other articles about the data generated by networked computers, check out the Feb 27 issue of the Economist.
For a while, I have been wondering whether Google will ever get too big. I worry that what it started out as (web indexer, page ranker, data miner) is fast becoming confused with something else (Truth Teller, oracle, gatekeeper). Google's Director of Research recently explained in Nature what the company has in mind for 2020 -- here's the story filtered through Bill Garrity -- and I'm not sure whether to be soothed or perturbed. Even if we wanted to, I don't think there is a way to stop or slow much of this, but I hope the more we understand, the more we can choose to be willing participants (or not). I hope that is what Google ultimately wants, too.