During a recent discussion at a research committee meeting about plans to destroy unused books in offsite storage at the University of Queensland’s library, I asked what seemed the obvious digital-era question: Why not scan the books before pulping them, just in case?
The library representative said that scanning had been considered, but the library figured it would be cheaper to assume that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) would eventually do the digitizing itself and make the materials available to university libraries.
Given that Google has not made public the financial terms of any such plan, it was a highly speculative assumption -- just another example of the blithe way in which we are coming to treat the developing commercial infrastructure of the Internet as if it were a public utility.
Recent revelations about Google’s collaboration with Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) to create a plan for tiered Internet access over wireless networks should remind us that Google is not a public utility: It’s a private, for-profit, commercial enterprise that makes money by providing convenient services, amassing information about our online activities, and selling customized advertising. The details of its business model may change over time -- but the data-driven, profit-making imperative will not.
We’ve had plenty of reminders about this in the recent past. Remember the time that people logged on to their email accounts only to discover that Google’s “Buzz” application had automatically displayed their frequent email contacts on their public profiles for all to see, including, notoriously, abusive ex-husbands?
The goal, of course, was to jumpstart Google’s new social networking utility, but it had the disturbing side effect of revealing users’ frequent contacts to one another -- like having one’s recent list of phone calls texted to all one’s friends. As The New York Times noted: “E-mail, it turns out, can hold many secrets, from the names of personal physicians and illicit lovers to the identities of whistle-blowers and antigovernment activists.”
Google's "clumsiness" in rolling out something like this lies in the way the company views information, which has much to do with finding applications for making sense out of (and putting to use) large amounts of data. Our contact lists, viewed in this light, are just one more data-set that can be multi-purposed, for them and for us. From Google’s perspective, it might seem like a waste not to put that information to "good use."
The Buzz incident is just part of a series of revelations regarding what it means to rely on commercially supported platforms for an increasing range of our communication and information-related activities. Consider the way in which applications like Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, and Blogger have come to serve as the infrastructure for our social and professional lives. It's really an unprecedented level of commercialization and privatization.
Against the background of Google taking over university email (and perhaps, eventually secondary school email accounts, document storage, and so on) previous concerns about commercial organizations in the schools seem quaint.
The "value proposition" is clear: Companies will provide us with a range of communication and information services in exchange for detailed data collection about an increasingly broad swath of our lives -- data that can be used in non-transparent ways to sort, manipulate, and market to us.
It's not the kind of choice we might make in theory, when laid out in such stark terms, but it does seem to be the kind of choice we're willing to make in practice, if only for a lack of alternatives.
— Mark Andrejevic is a Researcher at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland.