When his book The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) came out in March of last year, Siva Vaidhyanathan gained an epithet: “the Google gadfly.” The chair of the University of Virginia’s department of Media Studies won’t discount Google’s many achievements, but he fears its power. Google mediates our knowledge in unprecedented ways, he says, and its utopian, do-gooder rhetoric disguises the fact that no one really knows what it’s up to.
That wariness is one reason Vaidhyanathan will argue for the motion, “When it comes to politics, the Internet is closing our minds,” at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate on April 17. He’ll contend that commercial platforms like Google and Facebook would rather flatter than surprise us—and that they’re developing the tools to encase us in personalized bubbles. Vaidhyanathan also thinks the press overstates the role of social media in political revolution.
Recently, I spoke with Vaidhyanathan about Twitter, the blogosphere, and his blueprint for a Human Knowledge Project that would vet and organize the sum of the world’s information. Excerpts of our conversation are below.
Slate: You’ll claim next week that the Internet is closing our minds when it comes to politics. Can you preview a few of your arguments?
Siva Vaidhyanathan: There are several cases to make. One—and this is the premise of Eli’s book [co-debater Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble]—is that we use platforms like Facebook and Google that have an incentive to focus our attention on familiar things. The No. 1 motivation for both Facebook and Google is to satisfy our desires by placing relevant ads in front of us. They also highlight what they judge to be relevant content. So if you’re looking for shoes or cars, that’s a wonderful thing; it saves you a lot of time. If you’re looking for music, it’s a pretty good thing, allowing you to focus on certain genres and artists. But politically, it’s bad for democracy. We’ve created echo chambers for ourselves. Using Facebook or Google, we’re more likely to come across like-minded posts from like-minded people. A republic works better when we make the extra effort to engage with a variety of points of view.
Another argument goes that, in our discussions about politics, we pay too much attention to exciting Internet innovations. We’re distracted by the fact that lots of people use Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for political purposes. This thrills us because so many elites in the United States spend an unhealthy amount of time interacting with these platforms. We’re able to pretend that the thing we most engage with actually matters. It’s what I call techno-narcissism: the notion that the technologies that fascinate and entertain us must somehow be deeply important to the world. Look at the facile press coverage of social media during the Arab Spring. We have a tendency to ignore real human interaction, risk, and sacrifice.
Slate: But there must be a correct way to use the Internet to address these issues, right? Or is it totally incompatible with deep political thought?
Vaidhyanathan: The Internet has great potential for engaging in politics because it lets people speak to each other according to different power relations than they’re used to. We’re all equals on the Internet. But what’s interesting is the platforms we choose to use. More often than not, we’re plugged into commercial services, like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—and that means we’re essentially surrendering to the rules and limitations those companies must obey. Our needs as citizens to have rich public conversations are met inside technological walled communities. We’re debating in a shopping mall instead of a town square.
For example, the Indian government is very interested in censorship. Every Internet company that does business in India is worried about getting kicked out of the market. So a political activist in India using Facebook who runs up against the state is not going to find Facebook on his side, and this is one of the perils of using private services.
Slate: Which Internet companies worry you most? Are some more high-minded than others?