Slate: Google and Facebook don’t have any ethical obligations as curators of the world’s information?
Vaidhyanathan: No. It’s our obligation to recognize their limitations and not be idealistic about their contributions. And we can invent new platforms through which to engage in politics. To take one example, people talk about the blogosphere to represent interactivity. That’s a really powerful environment—not exactly noncommercial, but not dominated by any particular corporate auteur. The blogosphere has been one of the great pro-democratic contributions of the Internet.
Slate: Can you elaborate on this quote from your book? You say, “Google’s great trick is to make everyone feel satisfied with the possibility of choice, without actually exercising it.”
Vaidhyanathan: First of all, Google’s not the only element of our society that does this. The supermarket and Target do it too. The illusion of choice means that you get a number of different product options all filtered and selected within a fairly narrow range. What Google is doing, and it does it well, is scouring billions of documents whenever you plug in a simple search.
But the more Google tends to structure results around what we’ve already told Google about ourselves, the more Google is able to predict what we want. And though Google gives us thousands of results, most people rarely click below No. 3. I’d like to see people click to Page 2 occasionally. I would like us to click on the 10th result sometimes, just to see.
Slate: Does it worry you that Google maintains such strong ties to the White House? I’m thinking of Google chairman Eric Schmidt, who’s on the President’s Technology Advisory Council and was active in the 2008 campaign. Also Andrew McLaughlin, previously head of Google’s global public policy, now the White House deputy chief technology officer—
Vaidhyanathan: Yes, but I’m just as concerned that the former chairman of GE runs the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. In so many areas of life, rich people get to call the shots and set the agendas. That’s a big problem with American politics, and the Internet has not upended it. I’m not worried that Eric Schmidt’s access to the White House gives Google any sort of regulatory immunity. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that the Obama administration has been forceful about punishing Google for antitrust and privacy violations. I am much more concerned that Google’s way of thinking becomes the default way of thinking at the highest levels of power.
Slate: What’s Google’s way of thinking? Something scientific, rational, data-driven?
Vaidhyanathan: I’m all for scientific and rational. But there’s a particular mode of thought based on certain assumptions and logical algorithms—like, everything can be done cheaper as long as data flows better. That’s an unhealthy assumption and can get you in a lot of trouble.
Slate: Could you talk a little bit about your idea for a Human Knowledge Project?