The Pundits March Away

March 31, 2013

Another March comes to a close.  I posted a few thoughts and links over at the STS@Stevens blog…

Pundits March Away from Google

Google Reader & Google Keep

And a must-read story at the Chronicle of Higher Education that speaks to some of the bigger issues: You’re Distracted. This Professor Can Help.


The March Continues (2013)

March 9, 2013

Five years after I first tried to “March Away from Google,” I have asked my colleagues in the Program in Science & Technology Studies at Stevens Institute of Technology to reflect on issues such as antitrust, addiction, and language that came to the fore when I tried to take Google out of my life. You can follow our conversation at the STS Matters blog.


July 1, 2009

No, this is not a post about Bing (which I have not and probably will never use). Instead it’s just a link to a Wired article “Cool Search Engines That Are Not Google.”

From the artice:

“None of the sites we sampled are likely to replace Google as your go-to search engine for general queries, or dent Google’s growing sway as the world’s information broker any time soon. But even a cursory tour will make you start to think differently about what’s possible in search, and show up some of Google’s shortcomings.”

Again, it’s not that I’m interested in Google’s shortcomings; I’m more interested in starting to think differently about what’s possible.

Is Twitter relevant?

April 4, 2009

There’s a nice piece by Andrew Ratner in the Baltimore Sun that asks when Twitter took over the world.  He gave me a name-check in the piece after we had a brief exchange about earlier technologies that quickly became their own punchlines.  I told him that there were aspects of Twitter, as critiqued in the clever animation he sent me, that reminded me of my experiment with Google (the addiction stuff is astute).  But in the end he included my reminder that Charlie Chaplin’s performance in Modern Times (now that March is over I can link guiltlessly to youtube) captured contemporary fears about factory mechanization.  My career as a pundit began and ended thus.


April 3, 2009

It’s a difficult thing to struggle not to use Google in any aspect of one’s online activities.  As long as one is free to make that choice, and not unduly inconvenienced in one’s effort to make that choice, ok.  But for some folks, participation in the world that Google is creating is not a choice but instead an invasion.  This, I think, may be a useful distinction and an interesting point of departure for wondering how the private (one’s home) becomes public (visible to passers-by), and how the public becomes private (leverage for Google ad dollars).

Thoughtful slacking

March 28, 2009

Well if my blog was for a grade – or worse for a job – I would be failed and fired.  Instead of dwelling on why I have not kept up with my blogging–which would require me to sit down and write about why I spend too much time thinking and not enough time writing–I might as well get down to it.

– My Mac died earlier this month (temporarily, thank gods), so I was forced/lucky enough to use a friend’s machine for a few days.  Windows, complete with a desktop Google search bar (not sure if it searched the computer or the Internet or both) and Google set as the homepage.  I avoided both, but it was an interesting reminder about my choices and everyone else’s defaults and habits.

– Google is more useful than I reckoned for academic purposes.  Last week I used Yahoo to search for a particular sentence in a student paper that was obviously plagiarized.  Yahoo didn’t find the original paper, so I violated protocol and switched to Google, which came up with it as the top hit.  I know this is anecdotal, but it reaffirms my trust in Google and suspicion of other search engines for finding what I am hoping to find.  I think any more substantial discussion of these sorts of issues would require a more scientific study, which I neither have the time nor the energy to construct and perform.  In fact I can’t even be bothered to search for people who have done such things.  This sort of reinforces the notion that users, when given a wide range of choices, tend to go with instinct rather than empirical facts. Especially when such facts are hard to come by, but my advertisement-addled brain thinks it knows what I should trust.  On a related note, I haven’t encountered anything that comes close to being a competitor to Google Scholar (although I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking).

– In a similar vein, I was recently recalling a particularly brilliant lecture from an undergraduate professor of mine, James Merrell, who was talking about an attitude of “boundlessness” among Americans at the turn of the 18th century.  I wanted to see if he or anyone had published on the topic, so I turned to the WWW.  A quick search using Yahoo and another search engine (maybe hakia) turned up nothing.  This time I didn’t cheat – I didn’t regress to Google.  Instead I was left with the nagging feeling that I was missing out on something that could be at my fingertips, if only I had the right tools.  I also used JStor to see if he had published anything on the topic – but without success.  Perhaps I should send him an email – I’m sure he’d be somewhere between delighted to hear from me and puzzled about why that particular lecture has stuck in my head for 15 years.

– Google books.  Cheers to my friend Nystrom (a Linux-head and constructive contrarian by instinct, it should be noted), whose comment to use the Internet Archive for texts is a smart one.  For the record, has the 1909 edition of the Origin of Species (another text I am using for class – yes I am moving along at a fast clip); Google books has an 1875 edition.  IA does not, it seems, have the sort of page-by-page scrolling feature that Google Books has – you need to download the whole book and then let Acrobat or Preview (or whatever reader Linux uses 😉 deal with it.

– Changing subjects a bit and moving into the realm of public policy, one of the Google-related news stories I came across was this one about Google Voice and the potential legal problems that may follow from Google’s not-that-sly move into telecom.  Apart from privacy issues, this move also raises consolidation of power issues that IMHO Google would be smart to avoid.  This is a case where, on the surface, it seems like the marginal gain isn’t worth the increased legal risks.  But I’m just a history professor, not a lawyer or anybody who actually makes marketing decisions.

– We talked in one of my classes about the challenges of putting health records into electronic databases.  A great idea on the surface, and President Obama sure is pushing it, but even my sleepy and trusting students thought it would be a little bit weird for Google (or, worse, Microsoft) to be a centralized manager of health information. Gotta love the rhetoric though – “Google Health puts you in charge of your health information.”  To which I can see any number of users responding “Hey, what could possibly go wrong??”

– Finally, the point when I wondered why I bother: an article that reported that “craigslist” has replaced “myspace” as the top search term as recorded by a market research company that measures click-throughs.  This is interesting for only one reason: it tells me that people don’t understand how to use a browser address bar.  What kind of a world is this?  If you had told me that there are even 10 people in the country who, if they wanted to go to craigslist, would go to google (or any search engine) and type “craigslist,” I would have laughed in your face.  Yet the other top ranked sites include ebay, facebook, and netflix.  (Does anybody realize that if you type those same neologisms into an address bar, you get to where you want to go?)  The only actual search term–and by this I mean a natural language term, not a url that is not a real English word–was “yellow pages.”  I am absolutely astonished and dismayed by this.  I wonder if this sort of thing leads to mass depression among the designers and usability folks at Mozilla, Safari, Opera, etc?  I guess this underscores the point that the political economy of search is WAY more important than the convoluted politcal economy of DNS.  If I were a Google executive I would be thrilled with this news.  I wonder when people will realize that ICANN has just been a smokescreen (or magnet for academics who fantasize about “multistakeholder governance”), and the real action has been going on at, facebook, twitter, and other masters of the “first hit is free” school of network effects?  They collect our money and our trust, and we choose to give it to them.

PS – maybe folks will begin to see things more clearly and critically when Siva’s book comes out?


March 4, 2009

I am teaching a survey course on Science and Technology in World History, sort of a 30,000 foot view of world history with an eye on “science” and “technology” as unifying themes. Today we watched a video on Isaac Newton, Alchemist and Theologian. Tomorrow we talk about Baconian science and the Royal Society. Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society in 1667, a mere 7 years after it came into existence (and my colleagues make fun of people who do recent history….); one of the reasons it is valuable is because it contains accounts of experiments. These accounts tell us many things, including (a) what questions they were asking, (b) how they recorded their forays into experimentation, and (c) that experimental natural philosophy was a collaborative effort.  I thought it would be nice to talk about a couple of the zanier examples in class, and I recalled seeing a full text copy of Sprat’s history online, so I asked my new friend hakia to find it for me. Several minutes later, no dice.

I thought to myself, I KNOW I’ve seen it recently, probably last semester, when I was doing the same exact thing. So I cracked and went to google books. Sure enough, boom – full text of the 1722 3rd edition.

Is this a story searching for a moral? The book is in the public domain; hence it was a target of Google’s scanning project.  And for that I am grateful (although I need to come up with a better in-class example than the history of salt-peter).  But I also feel weird that I can’t get to it unless I go through Google.

And that is part of the big underlying concern that I have. For now, for things like this, Google is a virtue. They have brought this valuable text into the digital age, hence allowing me to bring it into the classroom–because I am guessing that the Stevens library doesn’t have a copy.  But in bypassing the older generations of gatekeepers, hasn’t Google simply become the new gatekeeper? Sure, it’s fine for now – but what happens when a virtue becomes a vice?

If the organizational ethos of our age is decentralization and modularity, and we all (at least the older ones) understand we got to this point because of our overwhelming suspicion of the big bad old monopolies… not for the first time in American history, mind you…. then why are we worshipping at the feet of the new big centralized information broker?

My answer, for tonight, is because it gives us what we want, and I WANT IT NOW.

In the end I downloaded the pdf from Google and, after looking at some of the (interesting) “related links” down the page, once again closed my tab on google. Something tells me I’ll be opening another tab quite soon.

In like a lion

March 4, 2009

A few notes from my first few days:

– Safari is out; Firefox is in. The switching costs were not terribly debilitating, most of my work was to retool my bookmarks and to play with the various add-ons and search options that Firefox offers.

– Along these lines: Google has infiltrated several of the add-ons. For example, the Firefox WebSearch Pro has an option (that I turned off) for “Use Google Suggest to offer suggestions as you type.” This was the first I had heard of “Google Suggest.” other search engines seem to offer a similar service; are they using Google Suggest, or their own version of this feature?

– I also was excited to finally explore hyperwords after seeing the enthusiastic support of people like Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. It could be enormously useful, once I get used to it. But, unfortunately for my experiment, it is keyed in to Google so closely that I wonder if turning off the Google options in the preferences (which looks possible upon brief inspection) will be totally debilitating to its search features of hyperwords. Stay tuned.

– I have a few other concerns about my experiment. First, YouTube.  I can’t quit you.  I get my political news from Wonkette, which relies extensively on YouTube clips.  And one of the greatest sources of laughter in my life at the moment is Special1TV, a puppet show that parodies the personalities of English and European soccer. Since the Setanta Sports website insists that I use Silverlight 2.0, and that doesn’t run on my Mac, I instead go to YouTube to watch the latest episodes. Perhaps the episodes are available elsewhere.

– I have grown to trust Google Scholar, and I don’t like the alternatives. JStor is, of course, far superior if one wants actually to read articles orbook reviews or what have you; but one needs a user account at a large university library in order to enjoy the full benefits of JStor. More on this in a seperate note. I do miss using Google Books, although, again, my March has pushed me to investigate other options.

– Finally, along these (academic) lines –, recommended to me last March, has a nice section of its search results that it refers to as “Credible Sites.” Definitely food for a classroom discussion on the reliability of information on the web.  It also breaks search results into categories that may or may not be useful  for students. See for example the search results for “pyramids.”

It’s almost (time to) March!

March 1, 2009
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 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.


April 3, 2008

I made it. I’m working up a longer post (or series of posts) to reflect on what I learned, but in the meantime I have some thoughts on why I am returning to Google:

1. Google books.  I am sick of searching for a book title and getting Yahoo’s prominent links to Target’s bookstore.  Amazon’s listings and Google books are way more useful for me (as a scholar), and these are right at the top of Google’s results.

2. Gmail.  I never figured out how to move my reading of one list I am on hosted by googlegroups, so I have simply not read those messages for a month and now I am catching up. I only lurk on this list, so one month off was not a big loss.

3. YouTube/ Google video.  I was cheating anyway (see below on Pato, Zidane, etc).

4. I haven’t yet switched back to Safari, and I am still using Opera (primarily) and Firefox.  I have been using Safari for banking, taxes, and other websites that have code that seems to overwhelm Opera.

5. I haven’t yet used any maps but when I do it will be Google maps, which seems to be the least quirky/buggy and most useful. Or maybe just most familiar.