Google and Academic Research

A professor at the University of Virginia recently published 'The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry).' The book argues that Google is contributing to 'the steady commercialization of higher education and the erosion of standards of information quality.'

google search

Just Google It

On the surface, it appears that Google has done a lot for academia. In addition to Google Scholar, the famous compendium of academic journals and articles, it offers Google Apps for Education, a massive suite of free digital tools. There's even Google Book Search, the world's largest digital library. But Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, contends that the Google mindset is actually doing more harm than good.

Dr. Vaidhyanathan isn't wholly anti-Google. Like most people, he enjoys the usefulness of the company's services and how easy they are to use. But in his new book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Dr. Vaidhyanathan worries that Googling things is giving people the wrong idea about how easy it is to acquire, and verify, information. He writes, 'The ways that Google structures, judges and delivers knowledge to us exacerbate our worst tendencies to jump to erroneous conclusions and act on them in ways that cause harm.'

He's not claiming that Google is somehow making us dumber. Rather, he's pointing out that biases are an inherent part of the Google algorithm, but we collectively ignore them. As a result, when we use Google as our primary research tool we're letting a profit-driven company that privileges shopping-oriented results over learning-oriented results guide our acquisition of knowledge.

google for education

A Public Option?

In fact, it's the commercial nature of Google that's causing Dr. Vaidhyanathan to raise a red flag. Google is very good at being a business, but is it a good thing for a business to be the gatekeeper of the world's information? The 'privatization of knowledge' has led us to give up a lot of personal data in exchange for information. In turn, that data is being used to customize the information we're getting back, tailoring it to our predicted shopping impulses. We've created a feedback loop where knowledge's primary function is to serve sales and, as Dr. Vaidhyanathan said in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed, 'The same service cannot serve wisdom and wealth equally well.'

Aside from the potential privacy violations, this creates a worrisome situation for academia and the world at large. We're losing control over information quality to a profit-motivated business. This is bad for academic research standards, and bad for the world's collective knowledge. 'Googling it' may not be dumbing down individuals, but it does stand to dumb down the world at large.

As a potential method for combating this problem, Dr. Vaidhyanathan has proposed an alternative 'public option.' He suggests that universities, libraries and similar institutions work together to create a not-for-profit knowledge base. The public database, which has a working title of 'The Human Knowledge Project,' would compete with Google, but not for ad space - for researchers.

In the Inside Higher Ed interview, Dr. Vaidhyanathan contends that his 50-year plan for The Human Knowledge Project is 'as feasible as it is desirable.' The only thing standing in its way, he argues, is the will to complete it.

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