The Googlization of Everything

by Scott McLemee on October 1, 2007

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s work in progress is a book that will address “three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google? How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge? and, How has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states?” It seems likely this will add more to the sum of human knowledge than, say, Jacques-Alain Miller’s papal bull a while back.

With support from the Institute for the Future of the Book, Siva has started blogging the project as he goes. And he doesn’t sound entirely comfortable doing so, which if anything makes the experiment more interesting:

For a number of years now I have made my bones in the intellectual world trumpeting the virtues of openness and the values of connectivity. I was an early proponent of applying “open source” models to scholarship, journalism, and lots of other things.

And, more to the point: One of my key concerns with Google is that it is a black box. Something that means so much to us reveals so little of itself.

So I would be a hypocrite if I wrote this book any other way. This book will not be a black box.

Of course, it could get ugly in here. I could make tremendous mistakes. I could shoot something out there that shuts all doors at Google. I could undermine my ultimate market (but I seriously doubt that I could). I could just write myself into a corner….

He gives an overview of what the book will look like — insofar as he can say before writing it — here.

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Vad är Google? at Det perfekta tomrummet
10.07.07 at 10:33 am



John Emerson 10.01.07 at 6:41 pm

Siva, I hope you say something about the ill effects of academic paywalls like Taylor and Francis, JSTOR, etc. etc.

Recently I got into a nasty debate here about Wikipedia, which I defended, but I didn’t stress enough that one of the nice things about Wiki is that Wiki wants me to read it. I’ve bumped into the academic paywalls dozens of times.

I doubt that a dime of that money goes to the authors of the articles. I even doubt that much goes to the universities sponsoring the scholarship. My guess us that the paywall-keepers are like robber barons extorting money from people who want to cross bridges. (If I’m wrong, someone set me straight).

Academic journals have always lost money. Internet publication could reduce losses somewhat and speed dissemination enormously. I’d be very interested in seeing an audit of Taylor and Francis et al.

And isn’t that Lacanian dude a piece of work?


John Emerson 10.01.07 at 6:42 pm


Wiki wants me to read it. I’ve bumped into the academic paywalls dozens of times.


Rich B. 10.01.07 at 6:49 pm

Perhaps I am alone, but I frequently forget that “Google Books” exists. Then, after several months, it will occur to me that it does, and it will instantly solve three or four nagging issues.

Then, the next day, I will forget about its existence again.

I cannot explain why this is.


bi 10.01.07 at 7:30 pm

Wikipedia? Open source?

Well, the output of Wikipedia may technically be “open source”, but the development process of Wikipedia — with rewrites of history (um, I mean editorial oversights), secret cabals with opaque decision-making powers, and private communication channels — is anything but open.

It’s to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s credit, I think, to at least realize that “openness” is more than just releasing one’s work under the GFDL.


joel turnipseed 10.01.07 at 7:42 pm

A few quick thoughts (questions, really), then it’s back to work…

1) Has anyone ever demonstrated that much, if anything, gets buried by Google? If so, what?

2) John Emerson’s complaint about JSTOR is a good one, though I don’t know how many people it affects. But it also raises an interesting question: Google is not paying to run the journals that Reed-Elsevier,, do… who would if they could not longer charge for their content? Surely the articles could be produced/peer-reviewed more cheaply than they are now, but how much more cheaply? I know we’ve talked about this before here… but what was the result?

3) On the larger question of modes of cultural production, and Google’s impact on them, my guess is that it’s still pretty minimal. Ditto Wikipedia. At least within the world with which I’m familiar, books, I don’t really see that Google has changed much–there’s still a very strong impulse toward the artifact here, and the physical/intellectual processes of discovery are still very much word-of-mouth, the book table, the neighbor’s place, and so on. But I’m willing to be wrong, since I have only really started thinking about this–in bits and pieces–since this summer’s “Crisis in Book Reviewing” meme took on a kind of viral quality. Am I wrong?


Seth Finkelstein 10.01.07 at 7:44 pm

John Emerson / #1: Wikipedia wants you to read it because it’s a loss-leader / attention-getting device. It has no business model to support writers (quite the opposite, it relies on emotional manipulation). What you’re describing is the age-old problem of supporting art and research.

Let’s not spend a lot of time going around this fundamental issue: NOBODY HAS EVER SOLVED THIS PROBLEM WELL. Existing attempts are all extremely inefficient, prone to rent-seeking and monopolization, shot through with oligarchies, Horrible, horrible, horrible, etc. etc. etc.

However, “The Internet” (broadly) doesn’t solve this either. If anything, it’s arguably WORSE, because there’s too many people running around saying that the solution is ad-supported popularity-pandering.


John Emerson 10.01.07 at 8:27 pm

Agreed that no one has solved the problem well yet.

I’ve never posted at Wikipedia, but I’ve recently seen a few stubs I could improve. (e.g. Henri Michaux, a vastly underappreciated and too-little-known French author). The sticking point for me isn’t pay — I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words on websites for about $1000 all told. The main reason I don’t do Wiki is the (quite reasonable) ban on original research.

But my point was: for this reader Wiki is reader friendly and JSTOT and Taylor and Francis are reader-hostile.


John Emerson 10.01.07 at 8:30 pm

If the universities gave academics some sort of significant publication or community-service credit for a superior, well-organized, reader-friendly wiki thingie, it would quickly supercede wiki on many topics. But I really doubt that the motherfuckers will ever do that.


engels 10.01.07 at 9:16 pm

Why do those cheese-eating Lacanians hate freedom? Don’t they know that Google = Democracy?


Walt 10.01.07 at 9:21 pm

I don’t understand your hesitation, John. Do you know things about Henri Michaux that do not appear in print anywhere?


John Emerson 10.01.07 at 9:24 pm

Well, laziness too.
I’m working on a thing about Michaux which makes a comparison to Descartes and Valery which as far as I know is not common knowledge or widely accepted. Of course I could write two things, but like I said, laziness.


Dan Miller 10.01.07 at 9:59 pm

Seth, I’m not sure what you mean when you say Wikipedia is a loss leader. A loss leader generally sells something else, no? What is Wikipedia a loss leader for?


John Landon 10.01.07 at 10:36 pm

It would be naive to think Google couldn’t morph into a new form of social domination.
As a critic of Darwinism outside the mainstream I a have learned how Google cheats, right under your nose.


Seth Finkelstein 10.01.07 at 11:15 pm

Dan / #12. It started as one means of getting attention for Wales’s old search/portal company “Bomis”. It’s grown into the loss-leader for Wales current digital-sharecropping company “Wikia”.

[Sigh, disclaimer: This is a blog comment, not a book. It is intended to briefly express a concept, not consider all nuances and complexities of an issue. As such, it may contain simplification, generalization, omit qualifiers, or focus on a particularly strong aspect to the exclusion of others].


vivian 10.02.07 at 2:03 am

You know, one of the weirdest things about the Web is how often I turn out to agree with Seth Finkelstein. No one would have predicted that twenty years ago. Okay, you may return to your originally scheduled flamefest, already in progress.


Sage Ross 10.02.07 at 3:16 am

Seth, the Wikipedia as loss-leader for Wikia argument is quite a stretch. The leadership of Wikimedia has few remaining ties with Wikia (and Jimbo’s place in the organization is increasingly tenuous, at least formally) and is wary of the appearance and potential of conflicts of interest (claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Advertising on Wikipedia would have been worth vastly more than the likely high point of Wikia’s future value, and the Wikipedia community certainly feels little obligation to promote Wikia (except insofar as it would promote any other project that aligns with its free culture ideals).

The owners of the Pokemon and Naruto franchises (to name but two beneficiaries of Wikipedia link traffic) are probably making a lot more money off of Wikipedia than Wikia ever will.

I think that scholarly work will feel some of the same effects: the more a scholar puts content relevant to his/her work onto Wikipedia, the stronger the future market for that work will be. The more heavily represented a given field within Wikipedia, the better represented that field will be within the baseline of cultural literacy, and the better its long-term prospects in the academy and beyond.


Seth Finkelstein 10.02.07 at 3:34 am

sage ross, denying the utility of Wikipedia to Wikia is something like saying a man can’t be exploiting a horse because they’re different species, and besides, there’s all sorts of regulations about not being cruel to animals. It’s confusing formal statement of facts which may be true in themselves, with inferences which don’t follow.

Your statement of relative worth is also completely incorrect. Since Wikipedia is a non-profit, it cannot be monetized in the way Wikia can. Wikia advertising income can go to Wales’s personal enrichment (that’s the point!) while hypothetical Wikipedia advertising income could not.

I suspect your claim about the value of putting work into Wikipedia is something you believe ought to be true, rather than something which is true. Given the well-known propensity of academics to discount popular press, plus the confusion of cause and effect (Wikipedia has lots of coverage of popular culture, but putting lots of coverage of something into Wikipedia won’t make it popular culture), I would certain require more evidence than a marketing sales-pitch before I gave such a claim any credit.


John Emerson 10.02.07 at 3:57 am

It’s not an argument against Wikipedia that academia doesn’t value general-interest publication. It’s been my point all along that if academia were less assholish, much of Wikipedia would be unnecessary.


Sage Ross 10.02.07 at 4:46 am


It’s one thing to say that Wikipedia has utility for Wikia (just as it does for many other businesses), but it’s a huge jump to suggest (as you seem to) that ‘loss-leader for Wikia’ is the essential characteristic of Wikipedia, to the point that it corrupts the whole enterprise and makes the free content ideals a veneer for profiteering. Obviously Wikipedia can’t be monetized in the same way as Wikia now, but the Wikimedia Foundation (and hence the irreversible non-profit nature of Wikipedia) wasn’t founded until mid-2003 (and Wikia not until 2004).

My ideas on the relationship between open content (Wikipedia in particular) and the academy are certainly inflected with a measure of hope, and might turn out wrong. But regarding the cause and effect argument, you can’t have it both ways. If popularity affects Wikipedia content but Wikipedia content does not contribute to popularity, then how can Wikipedia act as a loss-leader for anything? Conversely, if Wikipedia can be a loss-leader for Wikia, why can’t it be a loss-leader for the field of “Science, Technology and Society”?

Anyhow, academics discounting popular press doesn’t invalidate the value of popular publishing in raising the profile of a field beyond the ivory tower (and in the long run, within). Some disciplines (e.g., cultural anthropology) have benefited tremendously from promoting themselves in the popular realm.


Seth Finkelstein 10.02.07 at 5:42 am

john / #18. I actually agree with you on that point. I wasn’t making an argument against Wikipedia _per se_ there. Merely saying that if appearing in general-interest publications doesn’t help an academic, then appearing in Wikipedia sure won’t.

Sage Ross / #19 Note what I said about stating facts that were true but didn’t support the inferences. For example, Wikimedia Foundation 2003, Wikia 2004, doesn’t imply Wikipedia can’t be a loss-leader, since before 2004 it was doing that for a different company, “Bomis”. And I’m dubious there’s one and only one “essential characteristic” regardless of context. For example, cult can act to provide a fortune to its founder and also have complicated social manipulations. The point is that Wikipedia has had a financially-interested sugar daddy from day one, which severely limits its applicability as any sort of lesson (except for the obvious one that it’s great to have a sugar daddy).

If popularity affects Wikipedia content but Wikipedia content does not contribute to popularity, then how can Wikipedia act as a loss-leader for anything?

I lost you. Or rather, this is a bit like “Call me a cab.” “OK, you’re a cab”. Repeat: Wikipedia has lots of coverage of popular culture, but putting lots of coverage of something into Wikipedia won’t make it popular culture.

Conversely, if Wikipedia can be a loss-leader for Wikia, why can’t it be a loss-leader for the field of “Science, Technology and Society”?

Because “the field of STS” can’t go around pointing to Wikipedia to get $14 million of venture capital investment and oodles of gushing press.


Siva Vaidhyanathan 10.02.07 at 2:38 pm

Hey. Great conversation about Wikipedia etc.

But doesn’t anyone want to say anything about my book project? I could use the help.

I am particularly curious about whether people are consciously shifting their Web usage to the Google universe. Or is it just happening because we spend more time on YouTube than on Quicken?



joel turnipseed 10.02.07 at 5:09 pm


Well, I tried to jumpstart a discussion & it didn’t seem to go anywhere. I’ll throw a few more things out there and see where this goes…

1) My life in the Google Universe. I use iGoogle and gmail (though it hasn’t replaced Thunderbird for most of my e-mail use). My wife and I have synched Google calendars & my wife’s grad school study group uses Google docs, though I do not. Google itself, of course, is the very model of ubiquity… But: I don’t really use any of these things in a way that would be life/paradigm changing, except:

2) Google itself. Yes, there were search engines before Google, but none half so good, or half as easy/uncluttered. I remember using Google the day it launched and thinking, “Well, this is one ugly POS…” Now, it’s clean interface, lack of flashy ads (remember Yahoo, ca. 1998?), etcetera make it look good (and hey, who doesn’t like their occasional transformation of the Google logo for various holidays/days of note?). But has this ubiquity fundamentally changed things?

3) Hard to say, I think. Its success is part of a larger overall dynamic that includes wide-spread and cheap adoption of broadband (remember watching your minutes on CompuServe and AOL… on 28K or 56K dial-up?), the very Web itself (we could, after all, still be using this broadband to access Gopher), as well as the burgeoning supply of content. We wouldn’t think of Google as that big a deal if millions of users hadn’t created content for them to search. Did the NYT, bloggers, et. al., make Google–or vice versa?

4) The control/dissemination of this content is where things are coming to a head–and where Google is at the center of things (though there are other players, notably Craigslist): the base assumption of Google users, now habituated to almost a decade’s use, is that everything to which they link will be free. That’s a problem… as is the copyright problem. And just these two problems could spin out to Nos. 5-237 on my list (and the various Benkler discussions here covered some of them).

5) All of which is to say: I think the collective sociology of the Web, per se, is a bigger driver in a lot of these issues than any one company, though two of them are having the largest impact on content producers as a result–Google and Craigslist. I don’t fear a “Google Universe” so much as I think that the ubiquity of “free content,” the rapidly changing economic models of advertising (poor newspapers!), etcetera are posing very hard problems for content creators & that Google is playing an active and aggressive role in pushing these problems to a head.


bi 10.02.07 at 6:34 pm

“1) Has anyone ever demonstrated that much, if anything, gets buried by Google? If so, what?”

Maybe this counts?


joel turnipseed 10.02.07 at 7:02 pm

Except, bi, if you search for “lisa mcpherson” you get page after page of information about her. So: Google is not burying information about her or her relationship to Scientology.

It’s certainly possible that Google is burying things in the U.S.–and, as we know from their deal with China–could do more. That’s a big danger… but right now I think it’s a future danger. But that’s all… I think: don’t know.

I know that the ubiquity of free content and the changing ad models are killing a lot of newspapers (though again, Craigslist is as big a “villain”). But even there: do we really need thousands of newspapers in this country? Or twelve really amazing ones? I’d like to say the former, if only because you need a very large pool of journalists–a culture of journalism–to sustain excellent newspapers. OTOH, booksellers are doing pretty well, all things considered, so there’s still something, as I said above, to “the artifact” & that may extend to newspapers.

To Siva’s point: I think Google was a beneficiary of other developments–and is only one driver among many in these changes… changes that are, truly, mind-bending & frustrating. But they’re here–and will be here even if Google stumbles & is replaced by someone else.


Seth Finkelstein 10.02.07 at 7:37 pm

Siva: Sadly, lots of this has been hashed out in the undergrowth by the “frustrated human rights and privacy advocates.”. Nobody listens to us :-(.


John Quiggin 10.03.07 at 4:27 am

Siva, I am, if anything moving away from the Google universe. I use Google a fair bit, but not as heavily as a few years back, since
(i) For blogs, Technorati and others are as good or better
(ii) The Web is more stable, so I spend a lot of time visiting sites in my bookmark/blogroll list
(iii) Wikipedia has the answer to most questions

I have a Gmail account, and use some of the other Google services, but that doesn’t amount to participation in a Google universe.


John Quiggin 10.03.07 at 7:34 am

Seth, I can’t say I see a lot of difference between Wikipedia as a loss leader for Wikia and the Web as a loss leader for Tim Berners-Lee’s job at W3C or Linux for Linus Torvald and Linux International. Organisationally, these are nonprofits, but so what. Everyone who ever contributed to the Web/Linux/Wikipedia has give a marginal boost to the career/earnings prospects of Tim/Linus/Jimmy, as well as doing whatever they aimed at.


abb1 10.03.07 at 8:23 am

‘Loss-leader’ sounds like an interesting angle, elegant explanation. As JQ @27 suggests, pretty much anything OpenSource is a loss-leader in this sense: people develop free software products to improve their resumes, to be able to offer commercial support of these products and so on. Thank God for that.

So, is anything wrong with taking advantage of a loss-leader?


bi 10.03.07 at 8:48 am

“Google is not burying information about her or her relationship to Scientology.”

But it _was_ very definitely burying information, as the letter clearly indicates. We know this for a fact.

That in itself is quite worrying already.


bi 10.03.07 at 9:00 am

John Quiggin:

But, you see, Linux doesn’t suck. :-) And while Tim Berners-Lee’s WWW does suck, but at least he can have some excuses for that. :-) :-) (E.g. it doesn’t suck in ways in which he has control over.)

And Wikipedia does sucks, and Jimbo is actively contributing to the suckage — by promoting Essjay to Arbitrator, for example.


abb1 10.03.07 at 10:01 am


Pete 10.03.07 at 11:38 am

People are slowly shifting their stuff to Google, of which Gmail is the most worrying (for me). Mind you, they also put a lot of their lives on facebook, etc.

Google offers massive convenience. That’s why they’re winning. I’d like to see a public-service search engine, and public-service “store your data on the Internet and access it with handy web services” system, but I have no idea how they could be built. The public sector has almost no IT competence or understanding. A university might be able to do it, but I have no idea how they would fund it.


Vee 10.03.07 at 3:21 pm

Google has a fair market share but not yet..the universe. They are catching up though, happen to use them quite frequently.

They could become the “Rupert Murdoch” in the atmosphere of the Search Engines. Yahoo and the rest unfortunately are way..way………..behind.


Seth Finkelstein 10.03.07 at 5:28 pm

John / #27 – There’s a problem with equivalencing the smallest benefit (“give a marginal boost”), with a startup (Wikia) with valuation at tens of millions of dollars. There is an underlying reality, in the sense that the WWW development was unwritten by an institution, and big Open Source projects typically have corporate funding somewhere. So the point should not be to fuzz over the loss-leader aspect of Wikipedia with obsfucatory rhetoric, but rather that again, there’s been no magic solution to solving the problem of supporting art or research.
(and to vaguely connect this to Siva’s book, Google’s devil’s bargain with advertising can be viewed in this manner).


Quo Vadis 10.03.07 at 6:05 pm


I had occasion to do a lot of research for a business degree after having been out of school for 15 years and in the process I arrived at some interesting realizations about search engines and information.

I found that the sources I was using were very different than those I would have used 15 years ago. Before I would have searched for information by the context in which it was originally published. I would have gathered books, papers, studies etc relevant to my topic, and extracted the information I needed from them. Using search engines I wound up with a lot of documents on topics completely unrelated to the subject I was researching and I would use only small parts of those documents.

I realized that search engines like Google, and to a certain extent others like ProQuest, and Lexis-Nexis are completely changing the way information is organized and consumed. They take information out of the context intended by the authors and create an entirely new ad-hock context based upon the engine’s indexing algorithm and the search criteria specified. In essence, every search result is an entirely new machine-generated document composed fragments of many unrelated documents in which the context of the source documents was irrelevant.

I suspect that there was a really interesting and useful research project in that somewhere.


Martin GL 10.05.07 at 11:24 am

26: I find that most of the time, the Wikipedia search engine is too slow, so I use Google to search Wikipedia by typing in [thing I’m looking for] wikipedia. It’s almost always faster for me, but YMMV. So Google has become an integral part of my use of Wikipedia.

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