At first blush, this book looks to be a few years too late. The chatter in Silicon Valley these days is about social networking site Facebook, which, after several years of heady growth, is being touted as the next Internet game-changer. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped using Google, only that we’ve ceased to be amazed by it—which is exactly Siva Vaidhyanathan’s point. He argues that Google has become so commonplace in people’s lives that we no longer question how much power we’ve already ceded to the Mountainview, Calif.-based giant.
Adorned with its colourful logo, Google’s clever search engine effectively determines what we view on the Web, filtering results based on popularity, location of users and even personal search histories. We assume Google is on our side because we find its services useful and pleasing, but we seldom question whether Google’s view of the online world—or, more accurately, the picture of the online world Google allows us to see—is the same one we’re actually interested in exploring.
The core problem, according to Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, is that we’re not actually Google’s customers. We’re its product. Advertisers pay Google billions to use the information it collects about users to better target us with ads. While that doesn’t necessarily lessen the utility of Google’s services, Vaidhyanathan says it should make us think carefully about Google’s noble-sounding mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” when it comes to opening up our university libraries and other shared resources of human knowledge for Google to copy and index. After all, there are no guarantees that Google, a for-profit business, will always act in our best interests. Nor can we be sure it will still be around a decade from now, let alone 100 years or more.