Patrice Riemens on Mon, 9 Mar 2009 08:11:02 -0400 (EDT)

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<nettime> Ippolita Collective: The Dark face of Google

Hi Nettimers,

In collaboration with the Milano-based Ippolita Collective, I have
embarked in translating their book about Google in English. No idea if and
where it will be published in book form, but for the time being I am
sending the translation, in its first "Quick 'n' Dirty" manifestation, to
Nettime-l as a 'feuilleton'. Here's the first instaltment.
If you have remarks, suggestions etc. Pls mailme privately. Of course, if
there are points of substance you want to discuss on the list, feel
absolutely free to do so.

Greetings from Bangalore, patrizio & Diiiinooos!

NB this book and translation are published under Creative Commons license
2.0 (Attribution, Non Commercial, Share Alike).
Commercial distribution requires the authorisation of the copyright holders
Ippolita Collective and Feltrinelli Editore, Milano (.it)

Ippolita Collective

The Dark Face of Google


Google is the best known and most intensively used search engine of the
Internet, so much so that it has, over the past few years, managed to
become the principal access point to the Web. Surfers world-wide have
become completely accustomed to its sober and reassuring interface, and to
the unobtrusive yet ubiquitous advertisements adorning its margins. Its
users have massively taken to its convenient ancillary services, and its
use has become habitual to the point of an automatism: "if you don't know,
search it on Google!". People will also 'Google' instead of checking the
post-it they put on the fridge, or looking into their diary, search the
yellow pages or consult the Encyclopedia Britannica now gathering dust on
the shelve in the company of other hard-wired reference books that have
become just too awkward to handle.

Google has managed to exploit this craving for simplicity to the tilt. It
aspires to be the perfect and ultimate search engine, that is able to
understand precisely the query of its users and give them what they
require in a fraction of a second. Its elementary interface, which now can
be directly personalised and yet remain immediately recognizable in its
minimalist style, has become for a truly remarkable - and still increasing
- number of users the daily escape route out of the claustrophobia of the
electronic screens. It is a whiff of fresh air, a wide open privileged
window giving instant access to the fascinating world of the Net at large.
See how many people have taken Google as their personal home-page! And
yet, beneath such simplicity and user-friendliness hides a colossus, an
unbelievably complex and intrusive system out to achieve total control on
the management of information and knowledge of the 'Mare Nostrum' the Web
has become. Google is offering scores of free services to satisfy (almost)
any desire regarding research and communication: e-mail, chat,
news-groups, a file indexation system for your computer, image banks and
archiving facility for pictures, videos, books, and many other things.
Why? Who is benefiting? Writing a critique of Google looking through its
history, and deconstructing the mathematical objects that make it up,
present the opportunity to lay bare a specific strategy of cultural
domination. This enquiry provides for a more encompassing approach, in
order to shed light on the backstage of a large number of applications we
have become accustomed to in our everyday use.

This book starts with a brief history of search {engines}, reviewing the
more crucial moments in the ascent of Google. Having survived almost
unscathed the collapse of the 'new economy' bubble, Google has managed to
establish solid linkages with a number of big multinational players in the
IT industry. Its unremitting expansion in all sectors of digital
communication has advanced a particularly distinguishable style which has
set the trend across the entire cultural universe of the Web.

"Don't Be Evil" is the motto of Google's two founders, Sergei Brin and
Larry Page. The two Stanford alumni have, thanks to an arcane management
of their own public image, managed to create the notion of a "benign
giant", eager to archive our "search intentions" in his humongous data
banks. The digital alter ego of million of users appears to be in safe
hands at the Mountain View, California central data hub, better known as
"the Googleplex". It is there - and in many other data retention centers
that have mushroomed all over the planet - that nothing less than the war
for total domination of the Web is being hatched. First step is a cheerful
embrace of 'abundance capitalism'. Biopolitical control stricto sensu is
the name of the game here: working conditions are much better than merely
comfortable, the atmosphere is chummy, and bonuses are raining down on the
employees, who, happy and thankful, love to be exploited {in the Marxian
sense} and become the best supporters of the company, and proud to be part
of its conquering and 'be good' image.

The methods and objectives of Google have a positive outcome for all; the
firm's philosophy, based on certified academic excellence, and the
commitment to innovation and {scientific} research is rolled out in ten
clear-cut 'truth' on Google's site. These 'Ten Commandments' constitute a
Gospel of sorts for the Digital Era, while the 'Google-thought' is
propagated by pure and unassuming 'evangelists', all eminent personalities
of the world of information and communication technology.

Google's last but not least weapon is its adoption of the collaborative
development methods that are the hallmark of the Open Source movement.
Here, products are based on Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS), which
is not protected by copyright or patents. In doing so, Google reduces the
development and improvement costs of its own services, while at the same
time obtaining the support of techies, hackers and various kind of other
amateurs, and manages to profile itself as champion of free knowledge
dissemination, since using its search engine appears to offer a way to
access the Web that is both free and meritorious.

However, Brin's and Page's dream of "The Whole Internet into Google", a
dream pursued even inside {reputed} universities is a demagogic concept in
the end, an idea that serves to abide by a near-positivist cult of
scientific objectivity: as if in the chaos that is the Web, only a
superior technology could vouch for the transparency of the search
procedures and of the accuracy of the results - and all this for the best
of democracy!

Google auto-proclamation of itself as a 'democratic' instrument is
grounded on the allegedly 'democratic' character of the Web itself. Its
indexation algorithm, PageRank[TM] is constantly copying digital data in
its data-centers, assigning them a value based on the links that are
associated with each web-page. In fact, Google interprets a link from page
A to page B as a vote in favor of the latter by the former. But it does
not stop at counting the number of votes casts or links established by a
page, it also weights that page in. If such a page is deemed 'important',
its votes will count for more and will thus 'add value' to the pages it
links to. PageRank[TM] assigns a higher value to important and
high-quality sites by using criteria and filters whose nature is not in
the public domain, and which are used every time a Google search is
launched. Google's 'democracy' hence shapes the web in accordance with the
number and weight of the votes received by each web-page: it is a
democracy filtered by technology.

There are a number of secrets hovering around the Colossus of Mountain
View, but a fair number of them, as we shall see later, are fake. The
mythical aura surrounding Google's technology is due for a large part to a
lack of basic information, and of elementary bits of practice that would
enable people to engage the technological revolution in cultural terms. To
take just one example, the baffling speed at which search results are
produced is merely the outcome a drastic pre-selection process whose
criteria are anything but transparent. How could otherwise millions of
users browse ever so many million pages within Google's databases, all at
once and all the time, if there were not some opportune filters in place
to limit the scope of the search, for instance to limit it (mostly) to the
data couched in the user's own tongue? And if there exist filters which
enable a better navigation language-wise, why would one not assume that
there exists many others, whose aim is to orient the searchers in specific
directions? Google's miracle is in fact grounded in a closed {source}
technology, in copyrighted {trade}secrets, and in non-disclosure
agreements regarding {scientific research} discoveries. Search with Google
is neither democratic nor transparent as often proclaimed, for the simple
reason that it cannot be, both for technical and for economic reasons.

Google's white space where one types the key-words pertaining to one's
search is a narrow entrance, an opaque filter controlling and directing
the access to information. By virtue of being an informational mediator, a
simple search engine reinvent itself as an instrument for the management
of knowledge. This enables it to exert a stupendous amount of power, as it
attributes itself {near-} absolute authority in a closed world. Google's
cultural model is therefore one of technocratic domination.

The Ippolita Collective's aim with the present volume is to underscore the
problem of digital literacy and critical orientation of the larger public
on the issue of knowledge management at large. There is a social urgency
in achieving this. Internet offers users extraordinary opportunities for
self-education, in a way that even exceeds university schooling,
especially in such domains as communication and information technology
engineering. As the Collective has shown in previous works, the Free
Software movement is the most outstanding example of the necessity of
continuous self-schooling and of an autonomous management of digital data.

But there is an other side to this coin, a double negative: on one side,
the constant debasement of the humanities as model of education, despite
the fact that there are many a domain on the web devoted to them, and on
the other, the considerable {and augmenting} cognitive palsy of the
average user. Lost in the manifoldness of the data that are available on
the Web, we tend to go for the most visible points of reference -  Google
being merely the most blatant manifestation of this phenomenon -  without
too much questions asked about what processes are running in the
background; we part with our own private data with gay abandon, enraptured
as we are by the myriad of decidedly efficient and useful services, which,
as still appears to be the rule on the Net, are free to boot.

Ippolita insists on pointing out the lack of {scientific} popularisation
of the technological phenomena our society has been completely overtaken
by. Specialised technological manuals can be obtained a plenty,
sociologists wax eloquent about the "network society", politicians start
imagining an "open society", where the networks would form the substratum
of global democracy. But how many dedicated surfers know exactly what an
algorithm is? Very few for sure. And most of them will put their trust in
the returns provided by PageRank[TM] - an algorithm - that orders in a
split second their search results and in doing so directs their experience
of the Web. What is needed is the courage to prioritise {scientific]
popularisation without enclosing oneself in the academic ivory tower. It
is absolutely necessary to be able to speak about macro-economics without
being an economist, about info-mediation without being a certified
specialist in communication studies, about self-education without being a
pedagogue, about autonomous management of digital tools without being an
elected politician. It is also absolutely necessary to open up the debate
about fundamental concepts such as "algorithms", "sensible data",
"privacy", "scientific truth", 'communication networks", all of which are
far too little discussed by any sort of 'Authority' or 'Garant
Institution', which cannot guarantee anything in the end.
[NB: This last sentence is really a bit too vague - CHECK AGAINST ITALIAN

The habit to delegate {our work to machines} unfortunately engenders a
generalised lack of interest for the major changes our technological
environment is undergoing all the time. These then take place in silence,
or are covered-up in a media-induced fog, without their true nature ever
being assimilated by the public at large.

The most common attitude encountered amongst those who are faced with the
continuous and unfathomable "miracles of {modern} technology" waver
between wonder and frustration. And even mystical adoration sometimes
kicks in, as if the digital realm was gilding the world with an esoteric
aura, only to be unraveled by the handful of enlightened minds. Yet at the
same time, the inability to celebrate in a meaningful way the cult of
these new advances makes for deep frustration.

The Ippolita research group was born precisely out of this conviction that
change, and the interfacing of various competences and languages might be
able to transform what is commonly called the digital revolution into
something that enables one to understand our current epoch, with its
anomalies, as well as shedding some possible light on our future.
Scientific research, humanistic tradition, political engagements and
feminist methods are - among {many} others - the languages we intend to
use in these voyages of exploration.

Ippolita's activities show that 'to put 'it' into the commons" is just not
good enough, that the level of thinking about {IT} technology is still
limited and the toolbox of {most} users {far too} rudimentary. It is
{therefore} necessary to adopt an attitude that is both curious and
critical, and to develop competences at the individual level, so as to
understand how to have fruitful interaction with the digital world,and to
develop tools that are appropriate to the objects themselves. Our hope is
to multiply the spaces and places, and the opportunities to be autonomous
without succumbing, either to a facile enthusiasm or to a control-induced
paranoia. *Just for fun* is our motto! The practice of collaboration is
not a panacea that will magically transform every technological novelty in
a shared good; collaboration is also not in itself able to thwart
technocratic domination in the name of a greater electronic democracy.
Going for this represents a superstitious vision of progress, which runs
roughshod of individual choices. The synergy between networked subjects,
in realms that are perpetually mutating, is not the simple sum of all
concerned parties; it requires vision, passion, truthfulness, creativity
and an ongoing re-negotiations of the tools, of the methods, and of the
objects {and objectives} involved.

The linking together of the more technical elements to their social
presuppositions is without doubt the first, and arduous, step to be made.
This why this text (in the Italian original -TR ;-) is entirely
downloadable under a copyleft license at:

Translated by Patrice Riemens
This translation project is supported and facilitated by:

The Center for Internet and Society, Bangalore
The Tactical Technology Collective, Bangalore Office
Visthar, Doddagubbi post, Bangalore

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