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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Is Google Evil? The Never-Ending Search for High-Tech Villainy
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Beware lowly citizens of Planet Cyberspace, an ominous new threat lurks in your midst. Its name is Google and this beast won't rest until it has taken control of all our minds. At least that's what Wired columnist Adam Penenberg would lead us to believe.

In a June 23rd article entitled "Beware the Google Threat," Penenberg spins a dark and foreboding tale of "big, bad" Google's apparent sinister plot to take over the world and control our minds. You think I'm kidding? Well, let's dissect Penenberg's apocalyptic article in detail.

Penenberg levels several allegations at Google, some harmless, some quite serious. On the harmless front, he argues that:

"In exchange for free access to Google's resources, Google gets to fire advertisements at us from every conceivable angle."

Oh God no, not free services! How dare they bombard us with ads like, well, every other company on the planet already does. Evil, evil company... trying to let others sell us products like that to keep costs down. Shame on you Google!

Penenberg's paranoia-fest continues and grows far more serious:

"Google even gets to read our e-mail so it can customize our ad viewing experience."

Oh please, Google doesn't read our e-mail like that. Do you really think that Larry and Sergey (our even their minions) have the time to sit around their office all day and flip through the random musings of the public? Apparently, Penenberg believes something far more sinister is going on. He continues:

"The problem is that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the geeks who coded Google from the algorithm on up, are inserting themselves into our lives. They wish to accompany us everywhere, forever. They want us to see the world through Google-colored glasses."

Folks, it was at this point in the article that I actually spit out the coffee I was drinking like a cartoon character who had just been hit on the back of the head by a 2x4. After all, Adam Penenberg is a smart guy and good writer; he can't possibly believe that, can he? Unfortunately, he does (and this is where things get really silly):

"They can do this because Google has a grip on the interface. When we boot up and get online we hardly notice that Google dispatches a cookie set to expire in 35 years. Then Google filters our reality, dictates our aesthetic, collates and catalogs our memories, chooses what information we mine. The Google experience becomes a collective Rorschach test, which shapes our worldview and affects who we are and what we will become."

Wow, now this is a quite a conspiracy! Who knew that Google was collating and cataloging our memories. (Michael Moore, are you on top of this?) But does Penenberg offer any proof of Google's reality-filtering, worldview-shaping plot? Nadda. Perhaps he watched the far-fetched corporate conspiracy movie "Antitrust" the night before and had visions of high-tech conspiracies dancing in his head just itching to get out.

Regardless, contrary to the science fiction story Penenberg weaves in his column, Google has nowhere near the amount of power over our lives that he imagines. First, let's remember that no one forces us to use Google's search engine or various other applications. Sure, we flock to its services in large numbers, but that's not because anyone is zapping us with a cattle prod to get us to do so. Google offers a number of very useful services, the vast majority of which are free. Far from just benefiting Google and its advertisers, therefore, there is a compelling argument to be made that Google has greatly benefited average websurfers too. And as far as those 35-year cookies go, you can always delete them or refuse to accept them in the first place. I thought we got over the silly privacy fears about cookies a decade ago, but apparently Penenberg still sees a boogeyman lurking where there is none.

Second, Google doesn't completely dominate any of the markets it serves. It faces numerous competitors and threats of new entry in every field, including search. Hopefully Penenberg's heard of Yahoo! and Microsoft to name just two, but they are far from the only rivals out there. If you remain skeptical, try this little experiment. Go to the Google homepage and type in the phrase "search engines." Of the 43 million results Google will pull up in less than a second, the first dozen or so will be prominent alternative search tools. In particular, I would like to direct Mr. Penenberg's attention to Search Engine Colossus and Search Engine Watch, both of which contain comprehensive directories of the hundreds global search engines that exist on the Web. With so many competitors in the market, Google cannot be regarded as having monopolistic market power.

Third, regarding Penenberg's assertion that Google is becoming "a collective Rorschach test, which shapes our worldview and affects who we are and what we will become," this is pure gobbledygook. Google doesn't try to shape anything; it simply offers a portal that helps us find what millions of others are saying. Google is not like a traditional media operator that attempts to push specific viewpoints or types of content on us. Indeed, for this reason, some people argue that Google shouldn't be considered a media company at all.

Moreover, a little perspective is vital here. Arguments about a media or high-tech company trying to "shape our worldview and affect who we are and what we will become" might have been a bit more credible in the past when a handful of newspapers dominated the local print market and the "Big 3" dominated television. Even in that dreadful era, however, plenty of independent thought and creativity existed. By today's standards, however, that was the Dark Ages of media and information. In our modern world of information overload and abundance, no single operator is able to control much of anything. There's just far too much information zapping across the globe now for anyone to be in control or single-handedly "shape our worldview."

This gets to my final beef with Penenberg's column. He is playing a game that many other techno-Doomsayers have engaged in before: villain-creation. People love to invent villains, almost as much as they love to invent heroes. I'm sure there's a more sophisticated psychological or sociological explanation for this sort of behavior, but it seems to me that we need to invent bad guys if for no other reason that they give us something to keep fighting for (or against). Remember when it was IBM that was going to take over the world and program our brains? And then it was Microsoft. And don't forget about AOL-Time Warner. At one time or another, critics alleged that these companies were engaged in the same sort of plot that Penenberg imagines Google is masterminding today. It's all just a silly fantasy.

What I find particularly offensive about this sort of thinking is the way these critics always seem to assume that we're all just mindless sheep, aimlessly grazing the cyber-fields eating whatever info-feed that our techno-masters put in front of us. Meanwhile, the critics themselves--apparently thanks of their omniscient ability to see through the deceptions and brainwashing--are somehow completely immune to the efforts of the evil CyberLords. The critics imagine themselves clairvoyant while the rest of us are blind. They have found alternative outlets of news, information, and entertainment, but the rest of us are stuck in a rut, drinking the same info-Kool-Aid again and again.

To these critics I say this: Stop selling the rest of us short. We're not as stupid, uniformed, or easily lead as you think. After all, if someone is really trying to program our brains they don't seem to be doing a very good job of it. There's still plenty of diversity of thought and innovation taking place online. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Time Warner, or whomever your latest techno-villain du jour is couldn't do anything to stop this progress if they tried.

My advice to Adam Penenberg and other inventors of fantastic tales of mass media and high-technology domination is that the next time they dream up a story of how we're all just pawns in big propaganda game or brainwashing scheme, take a deep breath and step away from the keyboard because that next silly science fiction column you write may very well cost you your credibility.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 2:45 PM | Generic Rant , Mass Media

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