I’ve been thinking a lot about Google over the past few weeks, partly because I’m working on a project this summer on the future of news reporting, and partly just because there has been a lot of stupid crap said and written recently about the role of Google and the “link economy” in the production and dissemination of news. And a lot of this, in turn, ties into issues of public policy– specifically, the changes in laws and regulations that might reach down into the very guts of the web. In the next few paragraphs, I want to examine the relationship between Google, linking, democracy, and gathering news by positing two principles, a proposition, a caveat, two (big) conundrums, and conclude by pointing the way to some of the best forward thinking on this topic.
Here we go:
Principle One: Google is not “the web” — but its complicated. Back in the days of the Ma Bell monopoly, was At&T the equivalent of the U.S. telephone system? Obviously not. The “system” was really a series of interconnected cables, phone lines, local utility offices, operator switches, headsets, and human beings (like operators and telephone repairmen) in which AT&T was a dominant player. That dominance, however, made things complicated; many of the rules, technologies, systems, and even the methods by which telephones were used stemmed, in large part, from the way that AT&T, over its history, interpreted the telephone system and what it was for. Obviously, there were limit cases — AT&T could not have unilaterally decided that telephones were really best used for hitting robbers over the head, and marketed themselves as a home protection service. But given those limit cases (what scholars of science and technology call “affordances“), individuals, companies, scientists, and the government had a fair degree of room to shape the system they were operating on top of. At least for a while.
This isn’t a case, however, of “powerful companies determine how technologies get used, and it’s all a conspiracy.” Rather, there is a second principle at work here– what the same science and technology scholars call “black boxing.” The term actually comes out of computer science, and basically means that, at some point, a cluster of complex infrastructures become “black boxed.” They become seen as unproblematic and unified in a way in which they might not have been originally. Problematizing these unitary systems is called “opening the black box.” The example that has always made the most sense to me here is the idea of a car– for most of us, our car is a “black box”; it’s a unitary device that we ride to work and don’t think about much. Except, of course, when it breaks down; then we start to think very hard about the different objects that make up the black box, mostly so we can figure out how to fix them.
If we put these two concepts together– affordances and black boxing– and apply them to Google and them to the internet, here’s what we get. By deeply understanding and leveraging certain affordances of the internet, Google became the dominant company of the early 21st century digital economy. Along the way, partly because of its’ market and cultural dominance, and partly because it understood the world wide web so well, out notions of “the internet” and “Google” got packaged together in one black box. These days, its hard to disentangle the two; its hard to open that black box.
Newspaper executives are trying, though, and that’s what we’ve been watching over the past year or so. And that’s why it seems to frustrating, futile, and odd to so many people.