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Google’s Governance

In Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googleization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), he argues that not only has Google dominated “the nature and function of the World Wide Web,” but also achieved a “subtle governance effect.” That is, Google has found a way to dominate our current and future information ecosystem. The way Vaidhyanathan explains Google’s dominance seems to be undetectable to those immersed and only noticeable by distant, third party viewers.

He understands Google’s governance effect in three parts: Google’s power over the content of the Web, as companies mimic the core techniques and values of Google; Web users’ expectations when dealing with the Web, as they have been shaped to understand the Web in Google’s terms; and finally Google’s enhancement of the techno-fundamentalism ideology – the optimistic belief in the power of technology to solve problems.

Vaidhyanathan’s description of Google’s governance effect isn’t political or institutional, but rather resides in the more innate cultural and social processes of human nature. Therefore, it seems as though Andrew Perrin would also agree with Vaidhyanathan and his argument that Google has been able to achieve governing abilities without any type of election or appointment, but through a social and cultural process.

Vaidhyanathan first understands Google to have governing powers because of its ability to regulate the content of the Web. Various companies are so desperate to have their website achieve a high status in Google’s search results that they are willing to reshape their key messages around Google’s core techniques and values. Google certainly isn’t demanding websites do this; however, most website conform because of the universal status Google has achieved and the effect search results now have on most companies. In isolated events this couldn’t be considered governing ability, but worldwide conformity to a particular set of standards can absolutely be viewed as “a matter of culture: the shared ideas, practices, and technologies that help individuals combine into publics” (Perrin).

Secondly, Vaidhyanathan understands Google’s governance in terms of users’ expectations. That is, Google’s interface has shaped the expectations of users when using any website. Users expect efficiency, accuracy and safety. If a website doesn’t provide these things in a familiar setting, users will move on to something else. Again, users weren’t forced to use only Google as their primary search engine; however, it has become a normative standard that all other websites are held against. Google isn’t institutionalized as a primary search engine, yet its cultural and social dominance is giving it governing abilities.

Finally, Vaidhyanathan explains Google’s governance as a product of its success, which has enhanced the ideology of techno-fundamentalism. That is, the optimistic belief in the power of technology to solve problems. Users don’t think of Google as a network of people driving the technology. They are usually happy to accept it as it is: unidentifiable and incomprehensible. In other types of government, people demand transparency. This is where most of the danger lies with Google. Those immersed in the “Google lifestyle” are blind to the social and cultural changes it has catalyzed and the governance it has achieved.

Andrew J. Perrin. (2014). American Democracy: From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter. New York: Polity Press.

Siva Vaidhyanathan. (2011). The Googleization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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