All mighty, yes? All knowing? Perhaps not. At the 2009 New York State Communications Association conference last week John Durham Peters, professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa and author of Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication delivered a keynote address revisiting Google’s likeness to God. While not the first to draw comparisons between the secular search engine and religion’s top dog (New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman coined this connection six years ago), Peters points out the monopoly’s intention of becoming that all-knowing technological being, but identifies where it falls short in achieving that.
With Google acting as a data reducer, memory outsourcer, universal database, Peters argues that the search engine’s growth, power and capacity for knowledge has almost transcended the sacred – almost. While features like the “I’m Feeling Lucky” search leaves users in the hands of “fate,” Peters presents two reasons why Google is not omniscient.
First, Google is not a creator; it’s a logistical based medium that does not produce new content. Secondly, Peters said, 90 percent of the universe is comprised of “dark matter” that remains invisible to the human eye, with the same argument being made for the cyber world. If something isn’t archived, filed and searchable, that does not mean it ceases to exist.
It may not be God yet but at what point, asked Peters, does our society grow concerned about Google’s power and influence? “A monopoly of knowledge is dangerous because it empowers a certain class of experts,” he said. I agree. I also find it surprising that so many users are blinded by the ‘cool’ of Google. When I was old enough to dabble online, I had the options of Lycos, Netscape, Webcrawler and Yahoo! Yahoo! still exists but proves rather benign when compared with the stronghold Google has.
I remain one of the few Google holdouts, still preferring my Yahoo! e-mail address, my Yahoo! searches, my Yahoo! weather, my Yahoo! sports updates and my Yahoo! travel tools. In fact, I have not yet glanced at the gnovis blog calendar because I do not have a Google account (sshhhh don’t tell). I’ve listened to my friends pitch to me the Goggle Chat options, the collaborative nature of Google Docs and current events access that Google Reader affords. I’m not against any of these tools; I merely find them unnecessary. And, more importantly, I deem it dangerous to put so much stock in single sources – both on and offline. There’s a hierarchy behind every database, some transparent and others quite hidden. Knowledge is power and Google certainly has an awful lot of that right now. I find it troubling that we’re so eagerly following wherever this company wants to take us.
Peters allayed some concerns about surveillance, site crashing, archiving/indexing processes and the need for alternate sources of information (which he feels people, nature and books provide). With freedom of choice being one of the tenants of Capitalism, why are we comfortable with a search engine monopoly? We rail on Wal-Mart and Amazon for this but we exonerate Google because…? Peters suggested Yahoo!’s demise may be attributed to its exclamation point but I think the story of The Little (Search) Engine That Could has less to do with what Yahoo! is doing wrong and more to do with why such swift conformity and migration to Google.
I hope Peters is right because if Google is in fact God, then I am going to hell.