Four scholars look at Google

Today’s Financial Times includes a review essay by James Harkin, “Net prophets – Incorporated just 10 years ago, Google predicts and shapes our view of the world.”  The essay is a review of these three books:

Planet Google: How One Company is Transforming Our Lives
By Randall Stross
Atlantic Books

Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View of Europe
By Jean-Noel Jeanneney
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
University of Chicago Press

Search Engine Society
By Alexander Halavais
Polity Press

And the author of the piece is James Harkin and his book Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are will be published in February by Little, Brown in the UK and by Knopf in Canada.

In the piece, Harkin writes,

Google is now 10 years old, and in that decade it has become one of the world’s most recognisable brands. There’s no doubt that Google is everywhere in our lives. But how exactly has Google changed us, and what lessons can we really draw from its success? Three recent books — one by a professor of business, one by a cultural historian and one by a technology academic — all attempt to answer that question in different ways.

and concludes:

Jeanneney is right to insist that any culture needs to organise its information to reflect its priorities, and that it’s not enough to leave this to an automatic device. The classification system of the traditional library, he reminds us, is evident in books’ arrangement on the shelves, which encourages readers to browse those books in certain ways. It is possible that our facility with search technology will encourage new, looser ways of categorising books which encourage us to take our own path through libraries. It will not, however, be enough to leave readers to rely on pointers from their anonymous online peers. For institutions, the trick will be to adapting to changed cultural sensibilities — our determination to forge our own path through information and make our own associations between things — without surrendering ourselves entirely to Google’s algorithm.

In September last year, Google announced that it had digitised and indexed about a million of the world’s books — not bad, but well short of its target. A couple of years before that, according to Stross, Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt was asked how long it might take for Google to organise all the world’s information. “Current estimate,” he replied, “300 years.” Only a company with Google’s Promethean ambitions could think with such extravagant time-horizons. With 300 years’ notice to organise our response, we can’t say that we haven�t been warned.

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