N5M Net Time list moderator Ted Byfield had an almost impossible task summing up a panel discussion on the politics of the archive here on Saturday. The panel, at the Next Five Minutes festival featured Danielle Riou, who curates the Milosevic on Trial video archive and artists Julia Meltzger and David Thome, who create haunting works of art based on reconstructed state documents at Speculative Archive for Historical Clarification. And I'd been invited to talk about Google, or more specifically - as Google itself isn't really the problem - the consequences of Googlephilia. Google is remarkable for many reasons, not least among them being its ability to compel its most fervent admirers to lose their minds.
"The implications of Google have real implications for mass social procedure, on how we enquire," said Byfield. "It's so much bigger than terrifying - it's Interesting."
"We've noted how Google markets itself, as something light and fluffy," he added. "But it's worth us asking how it sees itself. For example Google is not interested in the specifity of the material - it's interested in patterns rather than the content itself."
"The most important thing," said Riou, "is to safeguard the world 'archive'. Now we have 'archive' in every single menubar, in Outlook, we should reserve the severity or authority of what we mean by an 'archive' by limiting what we call an archive."
The panel was introduced by N5M founder David Wagner who described Google as the world's first pop database. He may be right, although as regular Register readers are aware, there are serious implications of this popular cultural phenomenon which a largely bedazzled press chooses to ignore.
The Web eludes Google
Here are a few.
Firstly, it's worth remembering that Google only indexes a third of the web's nine billion pages. That it does so as comprehensively, if not more so, than anyone else, isn't at issue. Information costs money, and this has taken the sheen off the 'Internet' as it was once sold to us. It was supposed to bring all this information to our fingertips. "Information wants to be free," was a popular mantra at the time. But the most valuable collections limit their access, for very good economic reasons: they can't afford not to.
The best collections are Web-accessible, after a fashion. For example, San Francisco Library's public collections are one of the Web's treasures - and accessible to any visitor who takes time to pick up a Library card - but beyond the crawlers. They represent the tip of the iceberg of the Internet that Google can't see - but that the rest of us can enjoy.
However this brain drain, this emptying of the commons simply isn't what we were promised ten years ago, when the Internet was first sold to the public as, amongst other things, an almost infinite source of information. Ten years on, the reality hasn't lived up to the promise, and as Net Time co-founder Geert Lovink pointed out in a panel on Saturday, and as we've noted too, Internet usage in the West is stalling. The public is not stupid, and is now reaching for the off switch.
It isn't exactly fair to blame Google for this. Google has succeeded in becoming the branding for the Great Internet Project. But obviously, it can't be responsible for the content, which leaves us all somewhat underwhelmed. But the corporation continues to highlight the mystical properties of its technology with some absurd claims, and at the very least, encourages commentators to describe its collection as something it isn't.
"I'm a librarian, and I like Google," said Steve Cisler from the floor. "But I appreciate the point being made that there are different information domains. There is a whole lot of information that's not on the Internet and may possibly be offline." [These developments are covered in Gary Price's Resource Shelf pages].
Googlephilia tends to obscure this, and other issues such as data integrity and longevity. Historically, archives were maintained, as Byfield notes, by lots of men in brown tunics copying things out.
As is the norm with techno-utopian narratives, where things are always getting better, there's no room for bad news. Google is all good things to people who simply need enough faith. And there are plenty who want to believe.
(One of the stranger claims made for Google is that its excellence proves that a surveillance society can never be successful. The opening line in that piece informs us: "How much ass does Google kick? All of it". Googlephiliacs are effusive with pledges of faith and trust: "We trust the democratic, bottom-up, blog-building, link-loving nature and integrity of Google's PageRank system" [Morville]. It's a religious thing. It binds us together, they say. "Collectively we believe in Google, it's our memory, it's the way we share." [Winer]. (Perhaps Internet-ready PCs will soon be sold with sickbags to help us through such twaddle, just like airplanes.)
That anyone wants to believe that Google renders surveillance useless is itself pretty disturbing, not least when the claim comes from a 'privacy activist'. So Google is not only our doctor, it's our Supreme Court and our Miss Manners, too!
"There's a saying that 'History is Written By The Victor' but it's time to ask what writing is, and what history is," said Byfield. "Is it the infinite generation of real-time noise? It's not so clear what's happening to 'writing'. And it's very interesting what's happening to history." ®