There was a time not so long ago when I, along with nearly everyone I knew, was enamored with Google. Google inaugurated a new internet-era in which the sum of human knowledge would be easy to find and available to all. We turned our backs on the infancy of the web – the Yahoo! and AltaVista dark ages – and looked toward a future where knowledge would be liberated and culture would be opened up to the free play of innovation.
Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin captured the alternative spirit we once adored in Google in an academic paper entitled “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” (1998). In this document, the first public description of the philosophy and technology behind Google, the cofounders disparage the commercialization of search engines. “We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” Citing the example of OpenText, a search engine that corrupted its results with paid placements, they conclude that “the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.” For a time, this noncommercial approach was reflected in Google’s simple, ad-free website.
But then, something changed: Google forsook its founding vision. Perhaps Page and Brin’s guiding spirit was diluted by too much growth, or maybe the draw to be profitable made idealism seem irrelevant. In any case, Google opened the door to commercialization and advertising crept in. By 2000, text ads lined the side of the screen. Today a typical search in Google may yield ten results surrounded by 11 advertisements. If only it had stopped there. Now it is less about the ads Google puts on its own pages and more about the ads Google puts on everyone else's pages.
By making it easy for mom-and-pop businesses to add advertising to their websites, Google has become the internet's largest and most determined info-polluter – effectively killing the dream of a commercial-free internet. Since its recent purchase of DoubleClick for $3.1 billion, Google controls the ad-space on over 85% of all websites. Whether you are surfing the New York Times, MySpace or an infrequently trafficked blog, chances are that Google provides the advertisements that distract you. The fact is that Google is no longer primarily a search engine. As Google's CEO Eric Schmidt recently explained in an interview with Charlie Rose, “now we are an advertising company!” Today 99% of Google's revenue comes from the ads it strews on websites across the internet.
Watching Schmitt rejoice at Google’s new business model should cause us to pause and consider the long-term cultural consequences of relying on an advertising company to organize the world’s information. For the first time in human history, a single company both controls our access to information and corrupts that same information through advertising. Google makes money not from censorship – although it recently proved its willingness to engage in this behavior too – but from altering our worldview through the commercialization, commodification and adulteration of our culture's collective knowledge. Google is, in other words, the most radical reordering of information to benefit advertisers the world has ever known. If Google continues to play the role of librarian to the internet, the greatest warehouse of human knowledge ever built, we face tremendous danger.
The consequences of Google's commercialization of knowledge are apparent in our inability to confront the existential challenges we’re facing. While the physical world is dying, we remain transfixed by the shimmering digital world. We’re unable to critically sift through information, digest it into knowledge and combine it with personal experience to produce wisdom and action. Instead, we drift in a sea of disconnected facts, getting a buzz from being connected. But this passivity is not entirely our fault – it is induced by the experience of searching for knowledge online when everything has become a trivial, mindless commodity. Who can take the looming ecological catastrophe seriously when online content is squeezed between ads that either distract us or stimulate us to consume?
Google is to blame for encouraging the internet to become a space for consumption – let’s stop it from profiting. Sever the connection between advertising, clicks and sales. Instead of ignoring ads that annoy you, click on them. Let it be known that you are a protest-clicker, a culture jammer who is sick of what the internet has become and who is doing something about it. Clicking on advertising undermines Google’s ability to determine which clicks are real and which are fake. Advertisers will refuse to pay for protest clicks, as they already do with fraudulent clicks, and the myth of the online advertising system – that clicks translate into profit – will be thrown into disarray. With this myth under assault there will be little justification for increased online marketing.
While we undermine the commercial foundations of online advertising, we must also discover a radically anticommercial way of organizing information. Humanity needs a new knowledge paradigm – one that values the unity of information and finds pages based but on the broader ideas behind digital words, not on what is literally written. Unlike previous attempts at organization that have relied exclusively on computer scientists and automated spiders to index the internet, any new attempt requires something more. We need a system informed by an interdisciplinary approach, a system that critiques the assumptions inherent to the search engines developed thus far.
To give impetus to this project, I suggest that we gradually begin making portions of our websites unavailable to Google. Google has enjoyed unparalleled, free access to the information we put online, which has in turn encouraged users to rely exclusively on this corporate search engine. Not anymore. By blocking Google's access to the most important bits of our online data we will encourage the development of alternative forms of knowledge organization. This movement of sites “not in Google” will fundamentally undermine the assumption of its omniscience. To build a new system for the organization of knowledge is by far the most audacious plan ever proposed for cultural activists, but it may be our movement’s greatest gift to the future.
It is time we prove to the world that the knowledge we seek is not in Google.
Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org