Data Obseity and Popularity: It’s Google!

Via Eurozine.  An interesting article, “The society of the query and the Googlization of our lives,” suggests we suffer from information overload and paints a rather dismal picture:

Ordinary people have hijacked strategic resources and are clogging up once carefully policed media channels. Before the Internet, the mandarin classes rested on the idea that they could separate “idle talk” from “knowledge”. With the rise of Internet search engines it is no longer possible to distinguish between patrician insights and plebeian gossip. The distinction between high and low, and their co-mingling on occasions of carnival, belong to a bygone era and should no longer concern us. Nowadays an altogether new phenomenon is causing alarm: search engines rank according to popularity, not truth.

Dasein will never be the same:

What today’s administrators of noble simplicity and quiet grandeur cannot express, we should say for them: there is a growing discontent with Google and the way the Internet organizes information retrieval. The scientific establishment has lost control over one of its key research projects – the design and ownership of computer networks, now used by billions of people. How did so many people end up being that dependent on a single search engine? Why are we repeating the Microsoft saga once again? It seems boring to complain about a monopoly in the making when average Internet users have such a multitude of tools at their disposal to distribute power. One possible way to overcome this predicament would be to positively redefine Heidegger’s Gerede. Instead of a culture of complaint that dreams of an undisturbed offline life and radical measures to filter out the noise, it is time to openly confront the trivial forms of Dasein today found in blogs, text messages and computer games. Intellectuals should no longer portray Internet users as secondary amateurs, cut off from a primary and primordial relationship with the world. There is a greater issue at stake and it requires venturing into the politics of informatic life. It is time to address the emergence of a new type of corporation that is rapidly transcending the Internet: Google.

The article questions this type of enthusiasm:

In 2005 the president of the French Biliothèque National, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, published a booklet in which he warned against Google’s claim to “organize the world’s information”. Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge remains one of the few documents that openly challenge Google’s uncontested hegemony. Jeanneney targets only one specific project, Book Search, in which millions of books of American university libraries are being scanned. His argument is a very French-European one. Because of the unsystematic and unedited manner by which Google selects the books, the archive will not properly represent the giants of national literature such as Hugo, Cervantes and Goethe. Google, with its bias of English sources, will therefore not be the appropriate partner to build a public archive of the world’s cultural heritage. “The choice of the books to be digitized will be impregnated by the Anglo-Saxon atmosphere”, writes Jeanneney.

While in itself a legitimate argument, the problem is that Google is not interested in creating and administering an online archive in the first place. Google suffers from data obesity and is indifferent to calls for careful preservation. It would be naive to demand cultural awareness. The prime objective of this cynical enterprise is to monitor user behaviour in order to sell traffic data and profiles to interested third parties. Google is not after the ownership of Emile Zola; its intention is to lure the Proust lover away from the archive. Whereas for the French, Balzac’s collected works are the epiphany of French language and culture, for Google they are abstract data junk, a raw resource whose sole purpose it is to make profit. It remains an open question if the proposed European answer to Google, the multi-media search engine Quaero, will ever become operational, let alone embody Jeanneney’s values. By the time of Quaero’s launch, the search engine market will be a generation ahead of Quaero in media and device capabilities; some argue that Jacques Chirac was more interested in maintaining French pride than the global advancement of the Internet.

Here’s the conclusion, a variation on this:

For the time being we will remain obsessed with the diminishing quality of the answers to our queries – and not with the underlying problem, namely the poor quality of our education and the diminishing ability to think in a critical way. I am curious whether future generations will embody – or shall we say design – Weizenbaum’s “islands of reason”. 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. We might praise randomness, but hardly practice this virtue ourselves. If we can no longer stumble into islands of reason through our inquiries, we may as well build them ourselves. With Lev Manovich and other colleagues I argue that we need to invent new ways to interact with information, new ways to represent it, and new ways to make sense of it. How are artists, designers, and architects are responding to these challenges? Stop searching. Start questioning. 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.

This semester one of my students turned in an essay arguing that teachers have become largely irrelevant because one can just “google stuff and learn that way,” while doing other things, you know, like chatting and watching tv online.  If the plagiarized papers I received this semester are any indication, my students need to be a bit more discerning and critical when choosing what to “learn.”

2 thoughts on “Data Obseity and Popularity: It’s Google!

  1. Because of the unsystematic and unedited manner by which Google selects the books

    I am still looking for that special document that explains to me who and how selects the books – I think I agree with the argument though, as much as I like the fact that I can find a book on Google Books, it’s horribly organized and I think libraries should do their own scanning, in fact, it would be nice if all the books that come out also sent a digital copy to libraries and one could have an access to it from home – lazy? sure, but hey we’re academics, right?

    Vis-a-vis plagiarizing, I think I’m mostly offended by the low quality of it, not the fact – give me some effort here, not just cut and paste. But as long as universities promote education in terms of knowledge-acquisition, kids will think they profs to be an annoying mediation between a piece of information and them. Even skill development or stuff like “we’re raising leaders” is suspicious to me, before you know it, Google will take over that part as well…

  2. I know. Every so often I get plagiarized papers that are drawn from a variety of sources and cobbled together, but usually it’s copied verbatim from Wikipedia, which is of course, a rather dubious source of information to begin with. Wikipedia generally comes up first when one searches and this would seem to reinforce one of the points of the article.

    Re: knowledge acquisition. Well, perhaps. We could approach such plagiarism liberally and theorize that students cheat because they lack self-confidence or take the tack that it’s simply because they don’t want to do the work. However we think such plagiarizing, at bottom, it may be that it simply mirrors the broader culture.

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