It’s almost (time to) March!

I’m going to try it again.  

It’s been a year since I first Marched Away from Google, and, with it about to be March and all, I thought to myself: why not?  

There is certainly plenty to write about.  

The premise, to recap, is to not use google.  I have no ideological or economic reason for doing so; it’s just an experiment designed to raise my own awareness about habits and dependence and choice.  The objective is to avoid google products (search, gmail, etc) and–crucially–not use “google” as a verb.  There are no hard and fast rules, just a general principle–to avoid using google (or to use a substitute product/service) whenever possible.

Sending and receiving email to a gmail.com address is, under my guidelines, ok; going to google scholar to who (if anyone) is citing my dissertation is not allowed.  

How do I go about doing this?  And what can I expect to learn?  

The first thing I need to confront is difficult enough – how, as a practical matter, do I once again try to remove all uses of Google from my everyday activities?  I am teaching 3 classes this semester, and I regularly use google’s search, images, books, and scholar products in both my teaching and my research (when I have time to do research).  For example, I found on google maps (via wikipedia) and showed in class the view of Hven (the site of Tycho Brahe’s compound).  If you are using “satellite view,” you can zoom right in to see the ruins of his castle. You can also, of course, zoom out to see it in from a wider perspective.  My immediate task in this final day of February will be to find viable substitutes without disrupting my life too much.  This will include changing my defaults (including my browser, I am guessing, unless Safari has changed since last year) and, more generally, my habits–both browsing the web and using “google” as a verb (which I occasionally do, even though I feel weird about it).  

The second set of issues I need to confront are the main reason for the recurrence of my interest in this experiment: what does it mean to decide not to use google? Are there any generalizable lessons we can draw?  Why, to put it in different words, is this experiment significant?  Or to put it in the terms that my fellow survivors of the Johns Hopkins History of Science/Medicine/Technology colloquium would appreciate: so what?  I am consciously not taking an overly academic approach to this, i.e. footnotes and research and those sorts of troubling things.  Several people are taking google (and its presence or in some cases ubiquity in our lives) as a serious academic inquiry; to them I can contribute little more than subjective and anecdotal experience (and a few half-baked ideas). To wit – I see my experiment as occuring within several different settings.  For starters, google’s status has increased, as have the power and name-recognition of its executives and employees (I wonder how many googlers have left to work for Obama?), as have questions about whether the “googlization of everything” is a good thing.  For the most part, Americans want their creative energies to be expressed and channeled through private enterprise.  But  how much success is too much? How much power is too much?  These questions suggest the relevance of concepts such as monopoly, antitrust regulation, individual choice, and so on.  

In order to address the “so what” question, it is also useful to look back at my entries from last year and reflect upon what I learned (thanks to Siva for pushing me to address this important question; I should have done so last March 31st or April 1st, but I got lazy and regressed into google-dom).  I should note that between April 2008 and now I have saved at least a dozen links to blogs or articles in the NY Times or New Yorker that speak directly to my little experiment.  One of the immediate lessons, then, is to recognize how much time it takes to blog and to engage issues in any sort of depth.  This google thing is my first and only experience with blogging, and I can think of several people who would be annoyed with me for spending any time on it at all, when I should be working on my book.  (If you’re reading this you know who you are, and we both know you’re right.)

What did I learn?  On an academic/wonkish level, I learned quite a bit about network economics.  Some scholars posit that the late 20th century was the time of a transition from “managerial capitalism” to “alliance capitalism.”  My favorite illustration of this point is to think about the difference between a Bell phne (circa 1940s) and a cell phone (circa today).  The Bell phone is a product of a monopoly managerial hierarchy, from R&D (Bell Labs) to manufacturing (Western Electric) to local service to long-distance.  My cell phone, in contrast, has parts from taiwan & china, runs on a standard created by a committee of American, Asian, and European engineers, and my service provider is an American firm that is a fragment of the Bell monopoly that was infused by British and (I think) German capital.  The cell phone, therefore, is an artifact of high-tech globalization and alliance capitalism.  

But that’s hardware, and my encounters with google are (for the most part) cast in terms of software.  I ran into the most trouble last year when I tried to determine, in the spirit of Ronald Coase, what the boundaries of “google” were.  (Coase, for the uninitiated, asked a simple yet enduring question: why do we have firms?  The obvious follow-on question is, why do firms have the boundaries that they have?)  If I’m trying to avoid google, I need to at least determine what “google” “is”.  Its boundaries, I found, are mushy; and its alliances are both strong and deeply embedded.  I encountered the mushiness of its boundaries when I realized I should probably avoid YouTube; and I was dismayed to learn that its alliance with the Safari browser was so strong that I could not choose to use another search engine in the search box in the browser. As a result, I had to switch browsers.  This is, of course, network effects 101–lock-in, switching costs, etc.  As I said last March 31 after an unscientific comparison of a search phrase on yahoo and google, “Search engines don’t give you truth. They give you their network.”

There is also a more complicated set of issues here related to antitrust, consumer choice, and basic assumptions of neoclassical economics.  In a way, my experiment has shed light on the relationships between these issues–and that light, if I’m seeing correctly, revealed a house of cards.  Antitrust, as I understand it, has evolved in a way that privileges consumer choice.  To be a monopoly is ok (this is what patents create); for a firm to leverage monopoly power in a way that restricts consumer choice is not ok.  Theories of consumer choice, in turn, are based on (or at least related to) a few assumptions of neoclassical economics that critics (including adherents to so-called evolutionary economics) have exposed as rickety:

- market participants have perfect information
- consumers are rational
- markets tend toward equilibrium.

My experiment underscores some of the weak points of these assumptions.  In the first case, I have no clear sense that google (or any other search engine) generates better or worse results.  If I knew that information, I could make clearer decisions.  In the second, I think that anyone (like me) who decides to boycott a popular and well-respected product (like google), just for the hell of it, is not making a rational decision.  In the third case, given the last several months of market turbulence I haven’t found many people arguing that the Dow and the housing markets are simply settling toward an equilibrium.  

So to recap:  on an academic level, my tentative conclusions from my litttle experiment is that the theoretical assumptions that guide policy are suspect; and, in any case, good luck to the poor antitrust lawyer who would have to define what exactly google’s market is and, further, to defend the proposition that such a definition is stable.

I have also learned to be more attuned to fads in techno-culture.  The rapid emergence of google illustrates how quickly a new tool and new words become assimilated into our daily routines.  There is an element of group-think involved here: many folks, upon learning about my experiment, think I’m either weird or crazy.  They might be right; they might also be hopelessly narrowminded and unimaginative.  In any case, to dissent from a fad puts one on the wrong side of the “cool” boundary. Fads can emerge quickly and irrationally; they can also exert a strong and in some cases intoxicating influence.  Especially in a field (new media studies) or industry (new media) where being perceived as cool and in the in-crowd puts one on a fast-track to fame and riches, it can be costly to be contrarian. To be seen as someone who doesn’t “get it” is akin to the kiss of death; better to hide in the flock than to experiment with critical thinking!

There is another, rather more obvious, point about conflation: just as facial tissues are conflated with “kleenex” and photocopying with “xerox,” so too is google with search.  For the less expert, so are the web and the Internet.  Folks in advertising who want to build brands and enhance network effects make their living taking advantage of this sort of conflation/confusion.  My experiment served to remind me how difficult it can be to pull distint things apart once they are commonly seen as converged.

This entry has morphed from a quick note to re-introduce my experiment into a full-fledged rant.  So it is at this point when I will stop (for now).  Items on my agenda include an irregular set of “field notes”; a reckoning with the stories and questions that I have been saving over the past 11 months; and trying to find the right way to talk about my experiment with a class I am teaching this semester on “Technology & Society in America.”  And of course if anyone reading this has thoughts or suggestions, please let me know.
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One Response to “It’s almost (time to) March!”

  1. Grant Samuelsen Says:

    Great to see that the adventure (or lack thereof, I suppose) continues. We all miss you and hope all is going well with and beyond this totally genius project of yours.

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