by Charles Carreon
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It is now of course difficult to remember the Internet before Google, but actually, it existed. And it’s worth remembering what it looked like, not just for the sake of nostalgia, but rather, so we can adequately reflect on how the Internet is evolving as a Google-centric organism.
Actually, it’s worth remembering what computers were like before we hooked them up to the Internet. Our work computers were like little forges, in which we hammered out our productions, mostly documents, and printers were vital to their utility. So our work computers were essentially fancy typewriters that made revisions and formatting an easier process. We’d print out our documents and turn off the computer, and that was that. You wouldn’t spend hours fooling around with your machine unless you were truly a nerd, or a scientist, or a software engineer, because for most of us, computers didn’t really do anything interesting.
Then the Internet came along, and there was someplace to go. A screen became a point of departure. Totally different from a fancy typewriter. You used to hear writers talk a lot about “writer’s block.” I don’t hear too much about that anymore. It might have been a symptom of the typewriter itself, with that damned blank page sitting there waiting to be filled. Nowadays writers fear they’re about to be swamped in the flood of just plain old chatter that engulfs us. And printers aren’t all that vital, since most reading happens right off the screen.
So what the Internet did was to drastically increase the amount of time we spend absorbing information. If you can imagine being a shepherd, sitting on a hill all day watching your sheep, not communicating with anyone about anything, and then compare that with how we live our days – well, there’s no comparison. Your average person, forced to be that shepherd, might very well spend all their time looking for a cliff to jump off of. Information has become psychological food that we feel we need in order to be ourselves. And the Internet is an info-teat that few of us can tear ourselves away from for any serious length of time.
Question: To what extent did Google make the Internet into a huge info-teat? I would argue to a great extent, because Google institutionalized the idea that the fruits of the Internet should be free, and trained us to use to suck on it shamelessly all day and all night. We have more than halfway evolved into Homo Informaticus, the inhabitants of a Google-centric Internet, into which Facebook is not going to make an appreciable dent.
A Google-centric Internet is, above all, searchable. The original Internet was not. Shocking, eh? You think I’m pulling your leg. No, really, it wasn’t! Even though it was tiny by comparison with its current enormity, it was huge, overwhelming, unmanageable, hard to navigate. And guess what? Domain names were really important. Yes, domain names were crucial, because without them, how would you ever find your way back to some page that you’d visited? Unless you’d bookmarked the link, you were screwed.
Pre-Google-centrism, we searched to find information, not sites. Today, you find sites by plugging a chunk of text you remember into Google, and wham, you’re back at that site. And you don’t really worry too much about this website or that one, because no site has a corner on good content. Which leads us to the next characteristic of the Google-centric Internet – the erosion of brand-name power in the media field.
Once the New York Times stood at the head of the field in the newspaper world, and a column on the op-ed page made you a leader of society. Today a place on the editorial page makes you who? David Brooks? Paul Krugman? Maureen Dowd? Whoop-de-do.
This might lead you to think that the media playing field has been leveled. Be not deceived. In a Google-centric universe, nothing is level. Every surface slopes towards the hole at the center. It’s shaped like a rectangle. You type words into it, and the next thing you see is a list of links, with the sponsored ones at the top. The order in which those links appear reveals the true pecking order of our society. Those whose links appear at the top can find their pockets filled with lucre, and thus Google selects the worthy from among us.
In the ages of monarchy, supplicants came from all over the realm to plead their causes at court, and one had to find a skilled courtier to gain the King’s ear. In a Google-centric universe, we have SEO specialists. Fortunes rise and fall with search engine rankings. De-listing, downgrading, banning -- these are the causes of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Google has taken upon itself the burden of separating the informational grain from the husks, and it grinds that grain into the gruel that flows from the info-teat. If you are looking for something, and Google has not found it, you are not likely to find it either. And if Google found it unworthy of being classed as legitimate information, it’s going to be on the thirteenth page of results or maybe nowhere.
So in the end, you see, Google is the editor of a vast script that the rest of us are writing. Text has become more important than ever before in the life of commerce and culture. And it is being produced in greater abundance than at any time in history. The production of text is now the great competitive enterprise, and the rewards are ever more capriciously dispensed. While Google purportedly labors to stay ahead of the scammers who would flood your search-results with irrelevant responses and vapid content, there is no one but Google to judge the quality of its efforts. Indeed, we have no way of knowing what we’re missing. The cries of those whose worthy offerings are spurned by the all-knowing search-algorithms cannot, by definition, be heard.
Ironically, in our fact-driven age, we inhabit a universe built on faith. Faith in the omniscience of the all-knowing Google. Once the Roman Catholic Church had a monopoly on truth, and the Pope was seriously believed to be infallible. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Benedict gave up the job. The mantle of infallibility has clearly passed to Google.
Copyright 2013, Charles Carreon.