Google: The Latest High-Tech Bete Noir

Published August 1, 2005

Beware lowly netizens, an ominous new threat lurks in your midst. Its name is Google, and this beast won’t rest until it has taken control of all our minds.

At least that’s what Wired columnist Adam Penenberg would have us believe.

In a June 23 article titled “Beware the Google Threat,” Penenberg spins a dark and foreboding tale of “big, bad” Google’s apparent sinister plot to take over the world and control our minds. You think I’m kidding? Let’s dissect Penenberg’s apocalyptic article in detail.

Penenberg levels several allegations at Google, some quite serious. “Google even gets to read our email so it can customize our ad viewing experience.”

Oh, please! Google doesn’t read our email like that. Do you really think Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (or even their minions) have the time to sit around their offices all day and flip through the random musings of the public?

After that, Penenberg goes full throttle on the paranoia.

Cataloguing Our Memories

“The problem is that [Page and Brin] are inserting themselves into our lives,” he continues. “They wish to accompany us everywhere, forever. They want us to see the world through Google-colored glasses. Google filters our reality, dictates our aesthetic, collates and catalogs our memories, chooses what information we mine. The Google experience becomes a collective Rorschach test, which shapes our worldview and affects who we are and what we will become.”

Wow! Who knew Google was collating and cataloging our memories?

Unfortunately, Penenberg fails to offer any proof of Google’s reality-filtering, worldview-shaping plot. Perhaps he watched the far-fetched corporate conspiracy movie “Antitrust” the night before and had visions of high-tech conspiracies dancing in his head just itching to get out.

Contrary to the science fiction story Penenberg weaves in his column, Google has nowhere near the amount of power over our lives that he imagines.

First, let’s remember that no one forces us to use Google’s search engine or various other applications. Sure, we flock to its services in large numbers, but no one’s zapping us with a cattle prod to get us to do so. Google offers a number of very useful services, the vast majority of which are free. Far from just benefiting Google and its advertisers, therefore, there is a compelling argument to be made that Google has greatly benefited average Web surfers too.

Second, Google doesn’t dominate any of the markets it serves. It faces numerous competitors and threats of new entry in every field, including search. If you remain skeptical, try this little experiment. Go to the Google home page and type in the phrase “search engines.” Of the 43 million results Google will pull up in less than a second, the first dozen or so will be prominent alternative search tools.

Third, Penenberg’s assertion that Google “shapes our worldview and affects who we are and what we will become” is pure gobbledygook. Google doesn’t try to shape anything; it simply offers a portal that helps us find what millions of others are saying. Google is not like a traditional media operator that attempts to push specific viewpoints or types of content on us.

A little perspective is vital here. Arguments about a media or high-tech company trying to “shape our worldview” might have been a bit more credible in the past, when a handful of newspapers dominated the local print market and the big three networks dominated television. In our modern world of information overload and abundance, no single operator is able to control much of anything. There’s just far too much information zapping across the globe for anyone to be in control.

Villain du jour

This gets to my final beef with Penenberg’s column. He is playing a game that many other techno-doomsayers have engaged in before: villain creation. Remember when IBM was going to take over the world and program our brains? And then it was AT&T. After that, Microsoft. And don’t forget about AOL-Time Warner.

What I find particularly offensive about this sort of thinking is the way these critics always seem to assume we’re all just mindless sheep, aimlessly grazing the cyber-fields on whatever our purported techno-masters put in front of us. Meanwhile, the critics themselves–apparently thanks to their omniscient ability to see through the deceptions and brainwashing–are somehow completely immune.

To these critics I say this: Stop selling the rest of us short. We’re not as stupid, uninformed, or gullible as you think. After all, if someone is really trying to program our brains, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job of it. There’s still plenty of diversity of thought and innovation taking place online. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Time Warner–or whoever your latest techno-villain du jour is–couldn’t do anything to stop this progress if they tried.

Adam Thierer ([email protected]) is senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation.