Book Review: The Google Story and Google and the Myth of Universal KnowledgeSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Review of The Google Story, by David Vise and Mark Malseed, and Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, by Jean-Noël Jeanneney (trans. Theresa Lavender Fagan).
While writing this review I have learned the Google has announced Google Page Creator, an extraordinarily easy to use make-your-own Web site service. Google boasts that even the beginner can use Page Creator to post a simple Web site in a half hour or less. Of course, it is too early to gauge the impact, if any, of this service, and whether it will, like Google’s search engine, revolutionize the way people work and think. But the significance of Page Creator is that it potentially demystifies Web page construction and allows millions to set up simple Web sites without specialized training, making the formerly obscure art of Web site construction potentially a quotidian affair.
The uncanny thing about Google is how its most noteworthy innovations eventually become bywords in our society and seep into our everyday lives and language. The strange thing about Google is how it is both the biggest thing to hit the Web since, well, the Web itself, and how it also blends into the cultural landscape so seamlessly. If it is a revolutionary technological and business phenomenon, it is also a reflex, an enabler of action that does not draw attention to itself as the enabler. When it comes to stock options, profits, and legal battles, nothing commands attention quite like Google, but when you are mapping a trip, looking for a recipe, or, now, producing your own Web site, Google becomes google, and seems somewhat anonymous. This paradox is the source of the company’s strength: Google is all about function over form, making things easier, and empowering the user to do more and to do it more efficiently. If it has happened, along the way, to become a cultural event and to make billions in profits, that is secondary to its more altruistic and practical aim, in the true spirit of the Enlightenment, to universalize knowledge and organize it.
Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge and The Google Story by David Vise and Mark Malseed could not be more different in genre, target audience, rhetoric, and overall judgment of the Google phenomenon. But what they share is that both effectively present many of the ideological stakes in Google as a discursive and cultural event. Perhaps against their authors’ intentions, both books present the peculiar set of issues and contradictions that structure the contemporary discourse of Google. This involves not just the stories that writers like Vise, Malseed, and Jeanneney tell about Google, but also (and I think more importantly) the function of Google in our cultural imagination and how the “Google event” reveals deeper cultural problems that call for a more vigorous debate and a more critically self-reflexive stance than either book offers.
Therefore, my comments in this review are focused on how both books talk about Google. I am neither qualified to nor interested in disputing the factual history offered by the Vise and Malseed book, and many of the elements of the Google Book Search project that Jeanneney vigorously critiques have changed since the book’s publication, profoundly weakening the book’s attack. What is interesting about these books is in what they don’t say, and about how the authors’ own ideological commitments emerge in their analysis. Thus, the books’ value lies in how they shed light on the paradoxes and difficulties of writing about and discussing Google, and the larger cultural issues the company has helped to bring to focus. In particular, the Vise and Malseed book, as little more than a hagiography of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, deflects and obstructs real debate about, for example, privacy and the economics of information in the age of globalization that the Google event may not have initiated, but nevertheless has made more urgent than ever. Paradoxically, its effective erasure of these issues actually focuses them as conspicuous absences. Conversely, the Jeanneney book’s impassioned and focused critique of the Book Search project actually reveals many prejudices and blind spots in the author’s own thinking, which both friends and critics of Google ought to beware as both camps continue to learn how to discuss the impact of the Internet in current and future intellectual practice.
Vise and Malseed’s aim is to document the development of the Google search engine, and to offer glimpses into the culture and key innovations of the company. As is well known by now, Sergey Brin and Larry Page grew up in academic families, and were encouraged to pursue higher research in mathematics and computer science. They met in graduate school at Stanford, which provided a heady mix of eccentric geniuses and financial support. In this environment, they move from strength to strength, eventually developing the link-rating system PageRank, and, based on it, the early search prototype, BackRub. The book offers interesting descriptions of Brin and Page’s attempts first to sell the Google search engine to companies like Yahoo and AltaVista, and later, their attempts to gain investor support as they built their fledgling company. The backbone of this story is how, in Vise and Malseed’s view, Brin and Page maintain their altruistic intent despite the potential (and later reality) of large profits. As one Stanford professor is quoted as saying, “They are really driven by a vision of how things ought to be, and not to make money... The idea of digitizing the entirety of the universe and making it work is something nobody was willing to tackle” (50). How the authors frame this goal is more important than the details of how (or even whether) it was achieved.
The book is less a “story”—as the authors’ title suggests—than it is a paean to Brin and Page. Vise and Malseed’s adulation and accompanying purple prose almost verges on embarrassing. What they write about that Stanford professor could also be applied to Vise and Malseed’s attitude towards their subject: “His immense respect for Brin and Page was based on their lively personalities, their intellectual horsepower, the unusual maturity they displayed despite their youth, and an ambition that translated into a willingness to tackle subjects others had found too daunting.... ‘They are extraordinary people’” (49).
Lest we forget, the book is filled with reminders that Brin and Page are regular guys with good characters and benign intentions. Chapters on their devotion to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert and their vaunted workplace culture (including an entire chapter on their first company chef) underscore this theme. Thus, we are lead to understand their lofty ambition to organize the universe of data and their accompanying corporate secrecy, particularly surrounding financial matters, not as hubris but as part of a humanitarian project of immense proportions. With “focus in their beings,” Page and Brin wanted to create a perfect search engine that would “fulfill their vision of making all of the world’s information easily available to users without charge” (63, 85). They seek to eradicate the structures they view as myopic, backwards, and oppressive, imposing various sorts of cultural and economic differences. Instead, they offer greater democracy, equality, and opportunity across the globe: “Brin and Page are hopeful that these efforts will eventually make it possible for people to have access to better information and knowledge without the limitations and barriers imposed by differences in language, location, Internet access, and the availability of electrical power” (282).
Vise and Malseed fail to make a substantive or critical link between the goals of eradicating geographic, economic, and cultural difference and Google’s aggressive reach into the developing world,” not to mention its controversial Google Maps and Google Earth projects. It does not take a conspiratorial bent of mind to see parallels between Google’s ideal to both master and liberate every iota of the world’s data and the breathtaking power to surveil every inch of the earth’s surface. Recent controversy over Google’s acquiescent stance on China’s censorship policy reveals the difficulties inherent in Google’s ambition to universalize knowledge regardless of political barriers. Vise and Malseed’s praise of Google’s “elimination of geography as a barrier to communication and commerce” (147) blurs the distinctions between the usefulness of the company’s technology and their global financial influence. It is not clear that, as Vise and Malseed claim, the two founders ought to be univocally praised, that the knowledge of the world that our technologies produce can be independent of the profit motive that drives it. The universalizing efforts evinced here are hard to disentangle from the colonial aspirations of previous centuries, which globalization modifies but doesn’t substantially alter. Vise and Malseed’s book, unfortunately, merely presents Google’s ambitions as admirable and ultimately beneficial, when in fact there are crucial political and economic issues at stake in the new world of information that Google has helped create. When it does gesture towards serious challenges to Google’s goals, the book’s cursory treatment paints them as simply another obstacle to overcome. I want to be clear: It is not that I object to Google’s technology, nor to its right to make a profit. Instead, I think that the relationship between Google’s universal knowledge aims and their profit motive is a complex issue with many implications, which Vise and Malseed gloss over as they praise their subject.
With geography eradicated, where next to conquer? The human body becomes the next frontier. Believing completely in the human dimension of technology, Brin and Page, and the authors—who eventually become ideological extensions of the former—look forward to an era of human/computer intimacy with utopian longing, as they “foresee the potential for human beings and the search engine to grow ever closer.” In the closing pages of the book, Brin frighteningly muses, “’Why not improve the brain?... Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain’” (292). It is difficult to fully grasp what this might entail and avoid Blade Runner-esque ruminations, but Vise and Malseed seem to welcome this Google future without question, and clearly want their readers to do so as well.
My reservations about Vise and Malseed’s book may seem unfair; it is certainly true that their goal to tell Google’s “story” precludes any real critique. Generically, the book falls within the purview of the business biography, which seeks to inspire and teach aspiring businesspeople by the examples of the great men and women of industry. However, there must be a way to bridge these generic conventions with a far more searching approach. The fact is that Vise and Malseed’s fawning treatment does Google a disservice. If, in fact, Brin and Page want to see a democratically informed public—and there is great reason to see Google’s evolved role as that of an “information publisher,” as Google CEO Eric Schmidt says—and if they want to ensure Google’s success and development over the coming decades, vigorous and informed public debate is absolutely critical.
On this point, it is worth mentioning the highly publicized Google Books project, the company’s foray into the academic world, which has drawn significant controversy and some legal action. Some, like Jean-Noël Jeanneney, have warned that the methods of organization that have served us well in other Google searches will in fact lead to a disorganized stockpiling of information of little or poor use to scholars and that will mislead the novice. When Vise and Malseed simplify these (and other) substantial criticisms and opt instead for hero worship, they reproduce the sins that Jeanneney and others have charged Brin and Page with.
Privacy is another touchstone issue, and comes into focus in the chapter on the development of Google Mail, which has come under fire for warehousing its users’ e-mail messages. In today’s world of dwindling civil liberties, the mere stockpiling and presentation of information that could be opened to governmental (or other) eyes is alarming. It is here that Google’s benign goal to present information in a value-neutral way reveals its potential darker side. Ironically, Vise and Malseed’s way of telling of the Google story parallels this, in that it purports to tell the story in an even-handed, neutral manner, but its fawning tone hampers critique and instead celebrates the Google project uncritically.
The issue of what the authors’ call the “Google economy” adds a crucial dimension to these problems. Throughout the book the theme emerges of how Page and Brin make money off their search engine, while not being “evil.” What this means is that they intended to insulate the search from the advertising, so that, in effect, advertisers do not pay to have their Web sites listed high in the search results. The development of AdWords allows them to make money from the search engine without compromising the results of the searches. This relative autonomy of search and the generation of profit is a theme that weaves throughout the book, from the early, post-Stanford days to the present. Even as the question of Google’s expansion into China and their decision to play along with China’s censorship policies forces them to devise an “evil scale” (278), the authors are intent to show how the profit motive does not fundamentally impact the basic functions of Google for users. Vise and Malseed may have a point that this represents a different economic model than we are accustomed to seeing; they also insist that the “Google economy” represents nothing short of an “important new economy” (123). What is intriguing is that this ideal, to maintain the integrity of information without the encroachments of the cash nexus, is disregarded in The Google Story, which, despite its apparent intent to present information, becomes little more than advertising.
In contrast, the French perspective offers a salutary riposte to Vase and Malseed. Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge lodges many criticisms about Google’s partnership with several research libraries to digitize their vast holdings. Though he could not have read Vise and Malseed’s book before his own was published, Jeanneney’s slim volume can be read as a sustained attack on the universalizing pretensions of Brin and Page, as echoed in Vise and Malseed. Jeanneney has written a manifesto of sorts, a call to arms for the world to become alarmed at the Google Books project, its Icarus-like ambition and its typically American view that the world revolves around it. In tone, Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge could not be more different than The Google Story. The former is academic, rife with erudite (and at times overweening) references to the Grand Figures of French and European culture. It is, nevertheless, eloquent and impassioned in a spirit of both criticism and hope of continued efforts to counter what he views as Google’s hegemonic grip. Ultimately he hopes to galvanize European libraries, governments, and research institutions to resist Google and to develop their own scanning and search capacities, to continue worthy digitization projects already underway, and to kick-start mass digitization efforts with more sophisticated organization parameters than Google offers.
Jeanneney, who was until quite recently president of the Bibliotèque nationale de France, attacks Google on several fronts. Primarily, he objects to what he sees as the inherent American bias of the selection process. When he initially wrote the essay that would turn into the book, Google’s partnership involved only the libraries at the University of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, the New York Public Library, and Oxford. Fearing an English and Anglo-American bias, he also notes the haphazard, or at least opaque, selection process. Claiming that there have been about 100 million books printed in the West, he says that the initial plan to digitize 15 million, ambitious as it is, nevertheless represents a small percentage inevitably weighted to American authors and interests. Implying a parallel with our military and economic adventures throughout the globe, Jeanneney insists that Google is advancing the homogenizing American cause on the cultural front, in blatant defiance of the 2001 UNESCO declaration on cultural diversity. Though the Google project has rapidly expanded to include many Continental libraries recently, Jeanneney’s point that this project represents a clumsy and poorly organized plan is still noteworthy.
The question of organization is a key to Jeanneney’s complaint. As a librarian he is alive to the importance of context and cataloging as integral aspects of the search for knowledge. The algorithms employed by Google mathematicians do not factor in key cultural, scholarly, historical, or disciplinary structures that books emerge out of, participate in, and create. Google’s stubborn refusal to reveal their selection strategy leads to “anarchy of thought and impediments to action” (71). Google’s aim of exhaustion ought to be replaced with clear-headed and informed organization of the sort that libraries and librarians have historically provided, according to Jeanneney. Perhaps his best point is his call for partnerships among libraries, governments, private and corporate donors, publishers, and authors in the digitization process. The only way to ensure the permanence of the digital collection; to make sure it is an ongoing, free, and useful tool for scholars and others; and to guard it from anti-trust and intellectual property lawsuits is to advocate for greater openness and transparency than Google is willing to offer. Of course, Jeanneney’s point is not to call for a reform of Google’s efforts, but to foster his own, European movement to create a more “majestic instrument” than the one Google has wrought (83).
I am particularly intrigued by two related strands of Jeanneney’s argument, namely his treatment of the concept of diversity and the notion of culture that subtends his discussion. As I have already mentioned, Jeanneney fears American hegemony over the fruits of scholarship and cultural production, and his plan, he claims, champions cultural diversity. His brand of diversity, however, seems more parochial and homogeneous the more he presses the point. Quickly discussing China’s and India’s efforts to digitize their literary and scholarly heritage, Jeanneney has “no doubt that these two countries... will become our [i.e. Europe’s] allies against a globalization that not only would prove unproductive but would encourage bleak standardization” (38). He also tells us that “we should not forget the Arab world” and that “we must also think of poor and underdeveloped countries—notably in Africa” (38, 39). But when it comes to the question of including or integrating these regions into his plan, or even if such a thing even ought to be given serious consideration, he is silent.
It is quite clear that Jeanneney’s interest is plainly Europe, and “the freedom of all those who have contributed and will continue to contribute to the cultural wealth of Europe, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I’m including the marginal sensibilities and minority cultures in the Anglo-American world too” (48). Regardless what he means by “marginal sensibilities,” it is clear that his notion of diversity devolves into a staunch Europeanism fit to battle a monolithic concept of “American thinking” (49). Indeed, his text is littered with so many references to a purported “French,” or “European,” or “American” sensibility, attitude, or way of thinking, that it seems that Jeanneney’s notion of cultural diversity has an essentialist undercurrent to it. Ultimately it is not diversity that the book advocates, it is a Europeanism heavily weighted to the Western European canon.
This Europeanism informs Jeanneney’s fear of disorganization. Jeanneney claims that the Google (and American) model is to choose cold science over humanistic forms of knowledge organization. Perhaps he has a point in being fearful of Google’s approach. It is interesting, however, that his call for the need for stewards of the “heritage of humanity” encodes another type of homogeneity, authority, and ownership of knowledge, evinced in his rather paternalistic view of Europe’s duty to help “disadvantaged peoples to recover their past” (88). Should we be surprised, then, at Jeanneney’s clear mandarin leanings when it comes to culture? And that despite his claims to diversity and free access for all, he seems to be quite afraid of the specter of the uninitiated and untutored clawing their way through a Balzac novel without the digital age’s equivalent of professorial oversight in the name of “context”? When he says that “specifically concerning books and images, there is the danger that cultural populism will organize channels of access in favor of the most elementary, the least disturbing, and most commonplace products” (31), we get a clear notion of the type of culture he wishes to see immortalized and prioritized in the digital archives. It is the high culture of Western Europe.
Jeanneney’s fear of the culture industry leads us back to the question of economics and culture, which Vise and Malseed also explored, albeit in a different way. His caution against the American model of allowing the free market to determine standards in the cultural sphere is well taken. If governments proved themselves more adept at understanding economic matters, I could concur with Jeanneney that they ought to have some authority in the economics of cultural production. Perhaps the biggest shift that the Internet has enabled, when it comes to access to knowledge, is what it has meant for the status of authority and expertise in cultural issues. The question of who has the right to speak about the French Revolution or Cervantes (two of Jeanneney’s favorite examples) has substantially changed in the context of the digital environment, whether Jeanneney likes it or not. Yoking the efforts of technocrats and librarians in order to replicate the same (or similar) organization system based on the traditional disciplinary boundaries and protocols that were established in the age of print-based scholarship is a last-ditch effort to retain control not of access itself, but of a type of access that is inimical to the new medium. Just as Guttenberg’s invention, as Jeanneney reminds us, brought us the table of contents as an organizing structure, the Internet may have its own organizing principles, many of which have not appeared yet.
“What is at stake is language, of course” (7). Jeanneney says, rightly. Language is at stake, but not just the dominance of English. What is also at stake is the discourse of and around culture; who gets to speak, who gets to read and in what formats and contexts, and the changing ways we talk about these issues. While I don’t think the theoretical knots that Vise and Malseed’s and Jeanneney’s books have illustrated will be resolved soon, it is crucial that our writers on such matters continue to explore these larger questions raised by the advent of the age of Google.
John Cords works for the University of Michigan Library, in the offices of Development and Marketing Communications. He is also completing a dissertation in the University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature.
As Google’s digitization project matures, they are addressing this issue in part by including links to relevant reviews, websites, and scholarly works, along with links to online purchasing and library borrowing options.