Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Evening in Greenwich Village: Siva Vaidhyanathan and "The Googlization of Everything" at the Strand Bookstore

After a long day of teaching at the fabulous School of Visual Arts, we walked from our last class ending at 5:50 p.m. down Second Avenue and across East 12th Street to the Strand Bookstore to catch an interesting talk by Siva Vaidhyanathan on his new book The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry), which he called a "scolding love letter."

Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, had -- according to a man behind us (who also said he went three days without going online and admitted he didn't understand what Twitter was) -- been on Brian Lehrer's WNYC show this morning (well, the man actually said Leonard Lopate's show, but who knows the difference anyway?). On the air, and in person this evening, Vaidhyanathan -- also the author of Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity -- said his book is admiring of Google but wants to make us better and more thoughtful users of Google.

Google, he said, had had an uncharacteristically bad spring, given the European antitrust complaint (he noted Google has a much higher search share, well over 95% in nations like Portugal and the Netherlands, as opposed to its 70% share in the U.S.); the settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the Google Buzz privacy debacle; and Judge Chin's rejection of the settlement agreement between Google, the American Association of Publishers and the Authors Guild. (We thought it was curious that the professor said the Authors Guild represents "only a small number of elite authors," not people like himself; we've been a member since 1978 and we're about as non-elite as they come.)

Basically the author is trying to raise our awareness of the mechanism of the Google search (because of teaching, we weren't online much today, but we must have done thirty or forty Google searches, including at least half a dozen as we're writing this). After twenty years of Web culture, Vaidhyanathan noted, we've settled some issues (remember the old Time cover story scaring all parents that the Web would morally corrupt their kids?) but the way we use the web unthinkingly -- as we Google dozens of times a day -- needs to be examined with more critical thought.

Saying that we are not Google's customers but its "worker bees" seemed shrewd. Google's customers are its advertisers and we, the searchers, are doing the scut work which enables Google to perfect its vaunted super-duper secret algorithm (although we've heard the formula no longer includes cocaine as it used to back in the day).

Really, Vaidhyanathan said, the purpose of the algorithm and the Google search, is not to improve the flow of information but to facilitate shopping -- not that there's anything wrong with that. And the personalization of the Google search is definitely helpful to us, as when, based on our previous search history, its results for, say, "jaguar" begin with hits on South American wildlife for some and British automobiles for others.

There was an incredibly interesting question-and-answer session that ended the author's talk and preceded his book signing. It was instructive to hear the questions people asked, from the man who felt like a somewhat helpless victim of Google to the woman who wanted to know how to get off old information that she didn't want people to see (that she pays the highest property tax in her county, for example; the answer, of course, is she can't get it off and those of us with active online presences know the best you can do is get stuff on which will knock the unwanted material down past the first page of results which few get to) to the guy who wanted to know about Google's position in China in relation to its "Don't be evil" motto -- all got intelligent, fairly detailed and patient answers and raised even more interesting questions.

We look forward to reading The Googlization of Everything when this long semester ends, and we're grateful to the Strand Bookstore and Siva Vaidhyanathan for tonight's event. It's been a while since we've been out on a weeknight but we've got tomorrow off thanks to Holy Thursday. (And if you want a much more comprehensive, reliable and intelligent take on tonight's talk, see the blog of Marie Sciangula, the very smart assistant director of instructional technology at Purchase College.}

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