Google – an engine of cultural domination?

Google and the Myth of Universal KnowledgeLibrarians, including me, typically have a love-hate relationship with Google. We use their tools, just like you, oh yes we do. We are also constantly aware that there is a vast pool of knowledge sometimes called the Invisible Web that Google never shows you. But hey, Google’s motto is “Don’t be Evil.” How bad can dependence on Google be? And then along comes Jean-Noel Jeanneny’s Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge. Now I’m thinking about the company from Mountain View in a whole new way.

Jeanneney’s slim volume deals primarily with what was originally called Google Library but which is now Google Books. As the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, he was naturally interested in how many books in European languages have been digitized and made available via Google. Jeanneny ran a search on Victor Hugo and turned up only 1 title and that in a German language translation! (Now I have to be fair to Google, since then they have drastically broadened their reach.) Jeanneny protested that Google Library was ignoring the cultural heritage, not just of non-English speaking Europeans but of the vast majority of world’s cultures. And what happens if Google goes bankrupt – who owns the tens of thousands of digitized volumes currently in Google’s custody?

In addition to raising an alarm regarding the limitations of Google Books, Jeanneney takes vigorous issue with hidden biases in Google’s ranking algorithim and their disingenuous mission statement “Organizing the world’s knowledge.” As he wryly points out, Google’s real corporate mission is to sell ads (I doubt if their shareholders would disagree) and their sales vehicle is their search engine results. He also points, with alarm, towards Google’s quiet acceptance of censorship restrictions imposed by various governments including the Chinese, German, French and Saudi goverments.

Msr Jeanneney’s biases are obvious. He is, I suspect, being deliberately provocative. But the questions he raises are good ones. Ask yourself – Is there a danger to the cultural variety of the world from Google’s English language bias? Does Google’s dominance of the information pipeline threaten the free flow of information? Should a company whose motto is “Don’t be evil” be party to censorship? These questions are being asked in many places.  Read the book and decide for yourself.

In the meantime, here are some Google alternatives to try out.

Project Gutenberg – over 15,000 books in many languages, downloadable for free.

Gallica – a Euro-centric digital library sponsored by the Bibliotheque Nationale and several other European national libraries

Exalead – a search engine with some great advanced features, based in France but available in an English language version. Presents your results organized in folders based on relevance groups

Clusty – A search engine that tries to help you make sense of your results. They organizes results into folders.

Turboscout – created by an undergraduate from Singapore (the next search engine whiz kid?) this is a new search tool that compares the results from over 90 search engines on a single results page.

Dogpile – a more venerable metasearch engine, but one with a very cute webpage. Their website says – “all the best search engines piled into one.”

Turbo 10 – A search engine that focuses on the Invisible or Deep web. Best for authoritative articles not quick facts.

3 thoughts on “Google – an engine of cultural domination?”

  1. What an excellent and informative review, with good links. I have been using Dogpile for a long time and can’t wait to try some of these others. This kind of critical source reviewing is part of what librarians must be about these days.

  2. thanks Michael. We so easily slip into ruts, even or especially in the Library world, that it is good to have someone like Jeanneney shake things up a bit. There is alot of Google talk going on in the blogasphere these days. People are starting to think about the size of the info pipeline and who has the keys. That can’t be bad even if Google truly isn’t an Evil Empire.

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