About eleven years ago I was studying in Spain for a Publishing Master. There were many great and good craftspeople who taught us the ins and outs of a very particular trade – a very special trade. At the time, I was looking to set up an online publisher. I was aiming to cut costs in the industry by using technology to combine the roles of various skillsets in one individual. This wasn’t the paused, many-handed and time-honoured way of publishing – but in time it has come to pass, and ten years later we live in a quite different world.
What really was focussing minds ten years ago, however, at least in Spain and at least in this course, was what was seen as the evermore pervasive and encroaching danger of an American search-engine upstart called Google (the bold is mine):
Google began in March 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Ph.D. students at Stanford working on the Stanford Digital Library Project (SDLP). The SDLP’s goal was “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library” [...].
Google’s aims were clear – as least to the Spanish tradition of editors. Whether you liked the idea or not, whether you were prepared to collaborate or not, whether you accepted the terms as laid down by the powerful or quixotically attempted to resist their impositions, Google’s ultimate aim was to turn your thoughts, your lives, your very own selves and – finally – even your carefully guarded intellectual property into nothing more nor less than the virtual equivalent of the water that since time immemorial succeeds in seeping everywhere.
In the name of transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS), Google would one day be ripping out the very heart and soul of your entity.
And so that, as well, has come to pass. Online caches of all kinds mean that however careful a maintainer of your content you are, anything and everything you post is likely to come to someone’s preserving notice and instincts.
But, what’s more, instead of being used to promote the transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS) I mention, it’s become a sorry old tool of a most traditional bent: a tool which, in hindsight, my dear Spanish opponents were right to fear – and perhaps even right to resist. Google’s asserted desire to make knowledge available to all comes at a massive cost.
The cost is the Googlefying of you, me and the cat’s mother.
The Americans have consistently trashed WikiLeaks for opening the door to all kinds of communications they firmly argue are better kept secret. And yet, from their very own apple-pied backyards, we have Google invading every corner and content we could possibly conceive. The instinct to bare souls is shared too: you and I, our friends and family … all of us spill our bleeding-edge thoughts into the ether that now embraces everyone.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Googlefying instincts which a decade of brutal exposure has engendered should have now reached the chambers of our democracies. This story, for example, from 2011:
AN internet blogger has been arrested after she tried to film a Carmarthenshire Council meeting from the public gallery.
Now it would appear that no crime had been committed, nor local law infringed. The council in question simply took exception to its proceedings being recorded in such a way. I’m sure that the immediate reaction of most people in the Twitter- and blogosphere would be one of anger and surprise. And I suppose I’d feel pretty obliged to go along with such reactions – if only it wasn’t for the history of Google I’ve just gone and recounted.
Images and video are such cruelly permanent matters. Can we honestly argue that our democracy is entirely better for encouraging the kind of politicians who thrive on television appearances and firmly taped and registered political events? Many would argue, of course, that the transparency they bring is only ever going to improve the transparency of our political processes. But I’m really not sure this is the case any more. Images and video seem – of late, anyhow – to promote the worst kind of manipulation our body politic has seen for a very long time.
And if the arguments people have used against WikiLeaks – a dumping mechanism of all kinds of unwary data which makes private truth-telling and negotiation impossible to promote – are to be considered at all sustainable in any way, then equally the Googlefying of our wider world – of which random and unannounced filming of council and other democratic process is simply one of many examples on the horizon – needs to come under a far closer scrutiny.
From a very personal perspective, I would like to see far more politicians who can speak to the public without falling into the temptation of speaking to the gallery.
So ask yourself this, then: which, in the end, will the Googlefying of the world really encourage?