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<nettime> Google is polluting the internet
Micah White on Thu, 4 Nov 2010 12:23:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Google is polluting the internet

I wrote an article for the Guardian website about Google and the
commercialization of knowledge that you all may find interesting:


Google is polluting the internet
by Micah White

An advertising agency has monopolised, disorganised, and
commercialised the largest library in human history. Without a
fundamental rethinking of the way knowledge is organised in the
digital era, Google's information coup d'Ãtat will have profound
existential consequences.

Google was originally conceived to be a commercial-free search engine.
Twelve years ago, in the first public documentation of their
technology, the inventors of Google warned that advertising corrupts
search engines. "[W]e expect that advertising-funded search engines,"
Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote, "will be inherently biased towards
the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers." And they
condemned as particularly "insidious" the sale of the top spot on
search results; a practice Google now champions.

Under the sway of CEO Eric Schmidt, Google currently makes nearly all
its money from practices its founders once rightly abhorred. Following
its $3.1bn acquisition of DoubleClick in 2007, Google has became the
world's largest online advertising company. With ad space on 85% of
all internet sites, upwards of 98% of Google's revenue comes solely
from polluting online knowledge with commercial messages. In the
gleeful words of Schmidt, "We are an advertising company." Google is
not a search engine; it is the most powerful commercialising force on
the internet.

Every era believes their way of organising knowledge is ideal and
dismisses prior systems as nonsensical. Academic libraries in the US
use subject categorisation derived from Sir Francis Bacon's
17th-century division of all knowledge into imagination, memory and
reason. Yet who today, aside from one or two exceptions, would try to
organise the internet using a handful of categories? For a generation
trained to use Google, this approach seems outmoded, illogical or
impossible. But modern search engines, which operate by indexing
instead of categorising, are also fundamentally flawed.

Three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift foresaw the cultural danger of
relying on indexes to organise knowledge. He believed index learning
led to superficial thinking. Swift was right and a growing of teachers
and public intellectuals are coming to the realisation that search
engines encourage skimming, light reading and trifling thoughts.
Whereas subject classification creates harmony and encourages
serendipity; indexes fracture knowledge into snippets making us
stupid. Thanks to Google, the superficiality of index learning is
infecting our culture, our society, and our civilisation.

Google did not invent the index. That honour goes to the 500 monks led
by Hugh of St Cher who compiled the first concordance of the bible in
1230. Nor was Google the first to dream of indexing all of human
knowledge. Henry Wheately had the idea in 1902 for a "universal
index". And Google was not the first to cynically dump advertisements
into the search-engine index. What makes Google unique is the extent
to which it has, oblivious to the consequences, made a business out of
commercialising the organisation of knowledge.

The vast library that is the internet is flooded with so many
advertisements that many people claim not to notice them anymore. Ads
line the top and right of the search results page, are displayed next
to emails in Gmail, on our favourite blog, and beside reportage of
anti-corporate struggles. As evidenced by the tragic reality that most
people can't tell the difference between ads and content any more,
this commercial barrage is having a cultural impact.

The omnipresence of internet advertising constrains the horizon of our
thought. Seneca's exhortations to live a frugal life are surrounded by
commercials for eco-holidays. The parables of Jesus are mere fodder
for selling bamboo flooring. The juxtaposition of advertisements with
wisdom neutralises the latter. The prevalence of commercial messages
traps us in the marketplace. No wonder it has become nearly impossible
to imagine a world without consumerism. Advertising has become the
distorting frame through which we view the world.

There is no system for organising knowledge that does not carry with
it social, political and cultural consequences. Nor is an entirely
unbiased organising principle possible. The trouble is that too few
people realise this today. We've grown complacent as researchers; lazy
as thinkers. We place too much trust in one company, a corporate
advertising agency, and a single way of organising knowledge,
automated keyword indexing.

The danger of allowing an advertising company to control the index of
human knowledge is too obvious to ignore. The universal index is the
shared heritage of humanity. It ought to be owned by us all. No
corporation or nation has the right to privatise the index,
commercialise the index, censor what they do not like or auction
search ranking to the highest bidder. We have public libraries. We
need a public search engine.

In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin made a promise: "We believe the
issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial
to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the
academic realm." Now it is up to us to realise the dream of a
non-commercial paradigm for organising the internet. Only then will
humanity find the wisdom it needs to deal with the many crises that
threaten our shared future.

source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/30/google-polluting-internet

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