How to fight Googlephobia

by Rob Horning

10 September 2008


Google’s apparent control over the information society in which we live (no, not that information society) has been a robust topic lately, with much fretting over whether search engines have permanently damaged the depth and persistence of our thinking. 3 Quarks Daily linked to this article by Geert Lovink about Google’s having moved us from the society of the spectacle described by DeBord to a “society of the query.” The essay seems to have been dubiously translated into English from another language; otherwise I don’t know how anyone familiar with the subject would report Google’s motto as “Don’t do evil.” Anyway, drawing on computer critic Joseph Weitzenbaum, Lovink notes that the advent of a huge information repository requires

the acquisition of a proper education in order to formulate the right query. It’s all about how one gets to pose the right question. For this one needs education and expertise. Higher standards of education are not attained by making it easier to publish. Weizenbaum: “The fact that anyone can put anything online does not mean a great deal. Randomly throwing something in achieves just as little as randomly fishing something out.” Communication alone will not lead to useful and sustainable knowledge.

But people aren’t “throwing” material online “randomly.” Such a conception betrays the off-hand elitism of much of this sort of criticism, which detests “amateur” contributions mingling with material made by professionals—held accountable by the need to make a living—or some other sort of official who is accountable to the state. In the past, those forms of accountability seemed sufficient to establish “truth”, but of course, that truth was merely a matter of convenience and no guarantee of the Truth. The truth conveyed therein simply aligned automatically with the version the state and other powerful institutions wanted to propagate. Now, in post-modernity, such guarantors of truth are distrusted in part because of all the other contesting voices able to publish their versions. This cacophony leaves some nostalgic for the the days when truth could be force-fed to us.

So naturally, “critical thinking” needs to be taught more effectively to teach us how to process all the information of varying levels of quality, and how to frame queries so the information returned to us is useful to us. Knowing how to search effectively is becoming an important component of our human capital, along with the other intangible aspects of the habitus that facilitate success. But in order for critical thinking to develop, there needs to be a space in which it can be exercised—something akin to a Habermasian public sphere where critical insights can be voiced and tested and, well, critiqued.

The capacity of capitalism to absorb its adversaries is such that, unless all private telephone conversations and Internet traffic became were to become publicly available, it is next to impossible to argue why we still need criticism – in this case of the Internet. Even then, critique would resemble “shareholder democracy” in action. The sensitive issue of privacy would indeed become the catalyst for a wider consciousness about corporate interests, but its participants would be carefully segregated: entry to the shareholding masses is restricted to the middle-classes and above. This only amplifies the need for a lively and diverse public domain in which neither state surveillance nor market interests have a vital say.

The internet is precisely not that. Though anonymous browsing is become more user-friendly, the default mode of internet presence—it many ways its raison d’etre—is to have everything we do logged and publicized. And our primary way of navigating is through shallow searching and sorting rather than through deliberate, exhaustive moves prompted by careful critical thought.

Why? Because of the time crunch brought on by so much accessible culture. Digitization, fomented “cynically” by Google’s various scanning programs, transforms culture into data, which reduces it to its instrumental value in generating profit. A consequence of the accessibility of all this digital stuff is to pressure us into valuing novelty and making efforts to speed up our consumption (which I try to argue here among other posts). Keeping up with culture becomes a matter of opportunity costs; marketers tout novelty to glamorize and boost consumerism and technology facilitates our quick flitting around from subject to subject, which makes us believe we derive more utility from the practice than from slow reading. It becomes easier and easier to spiral into dilettantism.

So the war against Google is war over time. As Lovink puts it:

What is necessary is a reappropriation of time. At the moment there is simply not enough of it to stroll around like a flaneur. All information, any object or experience has to be instantaneously at hand. Our techno-cultural default is one of temporal intolerance. Our machines register software redundancy with increasing impatience, demanding that we install the update. And we are all too willing to oblige, mobilized by the fear of slower performance. Usability experts measure the fractions of a second in which we decide whether the information on the screen is what we are looking for. If we’re dissatisfied, we click further. Serendipity requires a lot of time.

I wonder if that’s true though—sometimes serendipity happens in an instant, particularly when we don’t know what we are looking for and might view anything that’s kind of cool as destiny. But it does seem to me that reducing our temporal intolerance—ridding ourselves of data rage—is key, though it’s basically counter to every trend in our culture, all of which encourage convenience and rapid consumption.

Lovint argues that we should stop fighting the inevitable:

Rather than trying to defend ourselves against “information glut”, we can approach this situation creatively as the opportunity to invent new forms appropriate for our information-rich world.

But in this article, there are no hints as to what those new forms would be. The only thing that comes to mind is the intellectual equivalent of mashups—link-saturated blog posts like this one, I guess.

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