Monday, November 24, 2008

Podcast: Siva Vaidhyanathan on the Googlization of Everything

In March 2008, Siva Vaidhyanathan spoke at Simmons College and the event was turned into a podcast (71 min.), with a transcript also available. Vaidhyanathan is associate professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia. Although not a librarian, in 2002, Library Journal cited Vaidhyanathan among its “Movers & Shakers” in the library field.

Vaidhyanathan is currently working on a book entitled The Googlization of Everything: How One Company is Disrupting Culture, Commerce, and Community — And Why We Should Worry, which has a blog.

Vaidhyanathan -- okay, Siva for short -- is interested in the extent which Google has imposed itself on us. Google -- its products/services, appliances, etc. -- are everywhere and are very difficult to avoid. We often use Google without realizing it, because many institutions are using Google tools on their web sites.

Siva noted three areas of life where Google is having an effect (likely there are more):
  • Shaking up the mobile phone industry by working to make the technology open. With people increasingly using mobile phones as Internet appliances, Google needs to be sure that these appliances are able to access everything on the Internet and are not locked into specific tools.
  • Altering the notion of what counts as knowledge. Siva argues that knowledge is "what Google decides is important" and not what we might think is important.
  • Tracking/changing our preferences. Google's records, mines and analyzes what we do in order to customize our search experience. "Search results tailored to the local." In other words, my results in Syracuse, NY on a specific term will likely be different than your results on the same term, because Google wants the results to be customized to fit your point of view (i.e., your location). Even if you do not have a Google account, Google does know your IP address and can use that to customize results.
Siva asks three questions in the podcast:
  • Is it possible to organize the world's information?
  • Is it possible to make that information universally accessible?
  • Is Google the correct vehicle for doing that work?
Siva notes that libraries are charged with organizing knowledge and making it accessible. For example, an academic library might be charged with collection/organization as much information as possible, then making it accessible to the college community. So Google is doing what has historically been done well by libraries.

Siva argues that Google is not the correct resource for this work. One of this reasons is that we know very little about how Google operates. How does Google decide what information to display to you? When Google tweaks its search algorithms, what changes does it make and why? Does Google really select the best resources to display to you?

That last question is an interesting one. Siva says that the web search results are good for Google, Yahoo and MSN (the top three search engines in the U.S.) and likely fairly similar. However, Google Scholar and Google Book Search do not give you the best, most authoritative resources on the first page. He said that if you are knowledgeable about a subject and selected the top five book resources for that topic, then did a Google Book Search, that those five resources will be scattered throughout the search results and will not appear at the top. He gave an example of doing a copyright search which retrieved a very old book as the best resources in Google Book Search (when he did the search).

Siva notes that Google's clients are its advertisers, who pay Google. Google's users (e.g., searchers) don't pay Google. Google tries to keep us happy, but may not try to delight us. In contrast, libraries exist in order to serve their users and librarians (and library workers) aim to delight their users.

So we have Google trying to organize content (top down) and we have users tagging content (bottom up), but what is lacking is information quality control, wisdom and "professionalization." The people who provide this are librarians...and librarians not being properly utilized in this process. Rather than handing this task of building a comprehensive digital library over to Google, Siva believes that we need to sit down "as a species" to understand how to build a universal digital library. And he thinks we need to build this universal digital library slowly, so that "quality and utility" can be priorities. He sees UNESCO and the Library of Congress as being instrumental in this. This, he believes, is too important to leave to one company, whose processes are unknown.

There is so much in this podcast, but I want to end with one more tidbit that occurs early in his presentation. Siva said, "the more motivated subjects and groups get privileged [online], not necessarily the most popular, dominant or relevant." Fringe groups have been able to use the Internet to ensure that their information is easily found. Historically, some searches brought up fringe information (e.g., Holocaust denial sites) before sites that would be deemed more legitimate. For example, does a search on the phrase "popular religions" really retrieve what you expect? He noted that Google altered its algorithms so that the results more closely match our expectations (e.g., on the holocaust), but what did Google change in order to do this? We'll never know.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you will know that I mention Siva occasionally. I was fortunate to hear him speak in May 2007 and found him incredibly insightful (and really down to earth). Even though I am biased, I think this is a podcast that everyone, who is involved in digitization and digital libraries, should listen to. It will make you stop and think...and ask a few questions. (And those are all good things to do.)

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