The Google Imaginary

As the DOJ lawyers up for a potential fight with Google (possibly the last entity they consider themselves capable of suing), we’re going to be hearing a lot about “competition on the internet” in coming months. As I’ve said before, I think that’s a will-o-the-wisp, an ignis fatuus that does more to distract us than to help us understand what’s really at stake in Google’s growing domination of the web. Having already commended the work of Felix Stalder, I’ll now turn to Geert Lovink to offer us some sense of the cultural and political consequences of Google’s dominance–consequences elided by the economic focus of contemporary antitrust inquiries.

Lovink critically examines the new media landscape:

The educated class deplores that fact that chatter has entered the hitherto protected domain of science and philosophy, when instead they should be worrying about who is going to control the increasingly centralized computing grid. . . . How did so many people end up being that dependent on a single search engine? Why are we repeating the Microsoft saga once again?

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Guided by a much older and experienced generation of IT gurus (Eric Schmidt), Internet pioneers (Vint Cerf) and economists (Hal Varian), Google has expanded so fast, and in such a wide variety of fields, that there is virtually no critic, academic or business journalist who has been able to keep up with the scope and speed with which Google developed in recent years. . . . Not only has Google become the better Internet, it is taking over software tasks from your own computer so that you can access these data from any terminal or handheld device. Apple’s MacBook Air is a further indication of the migration of data to privately controlled storage bunkers. Security and privacy of information are rapidly becoming the new economy and technology of control. And the majority of users, and indeed companies, are happily abandoning the power to self-govern their informational resources.

As I’ve noted in this post, I agree with Lovink that we need to assure much more accountability in the “cloud” as life online migrates there. Having questioned the cultural consequences of ever more pervasive marketing, I loved these lines from Lovink:

Google is not interested in creating and administering an online archive in the first place. Google suffers from data obesity and is indifferent to calls for careful preservation. It would be naive to demand cultural awareness. The prime objective of this cynical enterprise is to monitor user behaviour in order to sell traffic data and profiles to interested third parties. Google is not after the ownership of Emile Zola; its intention is to lure the Proust lover away from the archive.

Google is not simply one neutral tool among many; its business model and functionalities shape our self-conception in ways we are just now beginning to understand. It’s a key component of a social imaginary, informing how we think of the proper organization of (and access to) knowledge.