Have You Been Screw-gled Lately?

Greg sighed. He knew Google too well: Every time you visited a page with Google ads on it, or used Google maps or Google mail — even if you sent mail to a Gmail account — the company diligently collected your info. Recently, the site’s search optimization software had begun using the data to tailor Web searches to individual users. It proved to be a revolutionary tool for advertisers. An authoritarian government would have other purposes in mind. (Scroogled, 2007).

Canadian writer Cory Doctorow is best known as the proponent of copyright laws that should be liberalized and allowed for free sharing of all digital media. Arguing that copyright holders should have a monopoly on selling their own digital media, he proposes that copyright laws need only come into play when someone attempts to sell a product currently under someone else’s copyright.  How’s that for digital democracy?

Doctorow is also a science-fiction writer, and a futurist.   In 2007, Doctorow penned a fascinating, but eerily nihilistic view of the Google-dominated universe.  Like the panopticon, Doctorow’s short story, Scroogled, is about a world gone terribly astray, where every action parsed directly or indirectly by Google is effectively used to monitor our every action.

Not surprisingly, there is a search engine that goes by this very title that  Scroogle, a site designed for those who don’t want Google tracking their searches back to them.  Disguising the Internet address of users who want to run Google searches anonymously, Scroogle is a web service that gives users the option of having all communication between their computer and the search page be SSL encrypted.

Think about it: Google can keep your searches on record for up to a year and a half.  It’s said that if you do not want a record of all your searches in storage, then using Scroogle’s “scrapper” might be an effective method.

Are we living in a paranoid dimension here?   The librarian in me says that freedom of privacy and information is of course central to a democratic society.   Think about it: Google does have an enormous influence on us, although we are only subtly aware of it:

1.  Societal Influence – It has been a mental influence on people that if your search is not found on google it does not exist.  In fact, if it’s not ranked highly, it isn’t important.  And if one Google yourself (which a lot probably do), it’s a reflection of one’s “importance” virtually and physically, too.  Think of all the resources that companies are exercising in raising their Google ranking. Think of all times you search for meaning and answers to life, all coming from Google search results.  If Google isn’t a convenient magic eight ball, then what is?

2.  Street View – I must admit, I am admirer of Google Street View, especially when I want to see places I haven’t been before.  However, it has also been accused of taking pictures and coming too close inside people’s private homes and people who walk down the street not knowing they are being watched on Google’s service.   While they were at it, Google collected about 600 gigabytes of data from users of public WiFi stations (which are not owned by Google) during 2006-2010, including snippets of emails.

3.  Politics – Being the world’s largest company ultimately drags it into the political sphere, too.  Case in point: although Mainland China had already enforced by filters colloquially known as “The Great Firewall of China,” Google.cn search results were further filtered so as not to bring up any results concerning the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, or websites supporting the independence movements of Tibet and Taiwan, or the Falun Gong movement.  It wasn’t until only recently after a clash with China that Google stepped out of placating the world power.   But is Google tempting fate as a multinational corporation?   I guess while we wait for the answer, we should at least give Scroogle a try.

“Google doesn’t do social media well.” Discuss.

Ahniwa Ferrari of Washington State Libraries, one of early adopters I met at the Internet Librarian conference last year, passed on this provocative entry from Adam Rifkin’s …ifindkarma… blog, “Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications“, which dissects Google’s character as an online megalith and makes the pronouncement that its essential nature precludes its success with social media apps and platforms. Barring YouTube, which it purchased as opposed to developing itself, Google’s track record in creating spaces in which people want to gather and share is pretty dismal.

Personally, I made furtive stabs at Google Wave and Google Buzz, but have found neither anywhere near good enough to replace my other social media tools, or to even use at all. Conversley, I was let in on Google Voice last year and it became my go-to real-time communication tool, after Skype. Proving “Panda’s and Lobsters” thesis that Google makes great tools, not great social connectors.As librarians, we obviously need both, and this post provides some nice insights into how we can evaluate the programs, apps, and platforms that come our way. Understanding the nature of the beast is a large part of successfully making it our pet.

Here comes Google 2.0 for academics