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0.30 Seconds or Less

September 30, 2011

For today’s reminder that Google is a behemoth of a panopticon, we have Daniel Soar to thank.  Soar paints a picture of Google’s data acquisitiveness as the key to its success, letting projects organically develop in order to find new angles and aspects to organizing and delivering all of the world’s data.

…an insufficiently thought-about fact is that in order to organise the world’s information Google first has to get hold of the stuff. And in the long run ‘the world’s information’ means much more than anyone would ever have imagined it could. It means, of course, the totality of the information contained on the World Wide Web, or the contents of more than a trillion webpages (it was a trillion at the last count, in 2008; now, such a number would be meaningless). But that much goes without saying, since indexing and ranking webpages is where Google began when it got going as a research project at Stanford in 1996, just five years after the web itself was invented. It means – or would mean, if lawyers let Google have its way – the complete contents of every one of the more than 33 million books in the Library of Congress or, if you include slightly varying editions and pamphlets and other ephemera, the contents of the approximately 129,864,880 books published in every recorded language since printing was invented. It means every video uploaded to the public internet, a quantity – if you take the Google-owned YouTube alone – that is increasing at the rate of nearly an hour of video every second.

But what does Google’s hunger for information and development of products that collect data mean for us as humans?  What happens to the data points in a post-Google world?

‘We are not Google’s customers,’ Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in The Googlisation of Everything. ‘We are its product. We – our fancies, fetishes, predilections and preferences – are what Google sells to advertisers.’

Soar delivers slightly better news than Vaidhyanathan’s prognosis; Soar thinks that Google isn’t so shallow as to just turn over the information it cultivates and categorizes.  That would be too simple.  Google instead plays the part of the monopolist for advertisers and gives them an undifferentiated product designed to increase click-rates and revenues (not necessarily accuracy) instead of disclosing the scary-personalized level of data Google is internally cultivating.

Is Google’s long-run strategy and vision cause for comfort or concern?  Google’s products are certainly useful, as anyone familiar with Google as a verb could tell you.  The fact that Google can increasingly accurately translate languages and transcribe voicemails may give you shivers of excitement or dread at the thought of the new technologies those new capabilities would entail.  But Google also sits athwart network effects that require economies of scale to be effective and that same potentially abusive monopoly.  There lies the Randian dilemma.  Do you “stifle innovation” or “promote a free market”?  Depends on who made the most campaign contributions.

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