24 February 2006

Google's Creeping Cultural Imperialism

Another day, another Google launch.

As the official Google blog announced, the company is launching a pilot programme to digitise national archive content "and offer it to everyone in the world for free."

And what national archives might these be? Well, not just any old common-or-garden national archives, but "the National Archives", which as Google's blog says:

was founded with the express purpose of ... serving America by documenting our government and our nation.

Right, so these documents are fundamentally "serving America". A quick look at what's on offer reveals the United Motion Newsreel Pictures, a series which, according to the accompanying text, "was produced by the Office of War Information and financed by the U. S. government", and was "[d]esigned as a counter-propaganda medium."

So there we have it: this is (literally) vintage propaganda. And nothing wrong with that: everybody did it, and it's useful to be able to view how they did it. But as with the Google Print/Books project, there is a slight problem here.

When Google first started, it did not set out to become a search engine for US Web content: it wanted it all - and went a long way to achieving that, which is part of its power. But when it comes to books, and even more where films are concerned, there is just too much to hope to encompass; of necessity, you have to choose where to start, and where to concentrate your efforts.

Google, quite sensibly, has started with those nearest home, the US National Archives. But I doubt somehow that it will be rushing to add to other nations' archives. Of course, those nations could digitise and index their own archives - but it wouldn't be part of the Google collection, which would always have primacy, even if the indexed content were submitted to them.

It's a bit like Microsoft's applications: however much governments tell the company to erect Chinese walls between the programmers working on Windows and those working on applications, there is bound to be some leakiness. As a result, Windows programs from Microsoft have always had an advantage over those from other companies. The same will happen with Google's content: anything it produces will inevitably be more tightly integrated into their search engine.

And so, wittingly or not, Google becomes an instrument of cultural imperialism, just like that nice Mr Chirac warned. The problem is that there is nothing so terribly wrong with what Google is doing, or even the way that it is doing it; but it is important to recognise that these little projects that it sporadically announces are not neutral contributions to the sum of the world's open knowledge, but come with very particular biases and knock-on effects.


Anonymous said...

Well, yes. In a finite reality, every choice for one possibility must tacitly reject a plethora of others.
The consideration of Google and Microsoft in the same mental breath points to another tragic aspect of reality, which pertains to organizations; they cannot be static and survive, any more than you can see with an immobilized eyeball.
In summary, what else would you reasonably expect in a captialist context?

Gypsy Wisdom said...

It's interesting to that you're talking about Google cultural imperialism. I've been studying in China for the past few months, and, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that China basically wants to do without Google eventually. Did you know that the government is promoting Baidu as the main search engine? It does this by monitoring Google and gmail so much that it's too slow for most users. Thus, the stock of domestic search engines and websites goes up as users value convenience over quality. I was wondering if you think other countries will head the same way?

Glyn Moody said...

@Gypsy013: I think China is probably a unique case. As you know, its society is a fascinating mix of heady economic freedom and strict political control.

The other interesting aspect is that Baidu is under increasing pressure from the Chinese content industry: it will be interesting to see who the Chinese government backs in this one....