Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Political Economy of Google

My first encounter with the significance of Google in the culture of information was in one of the ICT classes I took for my MA degree. I was doing my final presentation on healthcare and the internet.

Inaya: I would like to argue for the significance of ICT in the development and advancement of global healthcare. For that case, I'd like all of you to indulge me in imagining yourself hearing a dear friend of yours dying of a terminal illness you've never heard before. Social courtesy of course holds us back from asking them what type of illness they actually have. You really want to know. My question is: 'What do you do?'
Classmate: I just Google it.

That was exactly the answer I was anticipating. I was in awe it took me several seconds to realise how Google is actually so instilled in our daily culture and information gathering that is has become a culturally acceptable verb.

Having a media and culture background, it's difficult for me to not think about the larger picture. I began relating the phenomenon of Google and/or Wikipedia (Just Wiki it!) with capital ownership.

My hypothesis is, as with conventional media before and the idea of Political Economy theory* (television, newspaper, satellites - e.g. Rupert Murdoch) - He who owns media outlets will ultimately own information flow. He who owns information flow will ultimately own ideology construction (e.g. McDonalds - fast food culture, Hollywood - popular culture, etc) and, eventually, the export and consumption of durable goods.

I couldn't help but worry, when reading about Google.Inc's various acquisitions, among others, YouTube. I began to realise the consequence of making Google my single source of information. When using this search engine, and a list of links appear, Google has 'Agenda Setting' power or the power to set our information agenda. What used to be the power reserved by news media (television news, newspaper news) by deciding which headline is important to us is now acquired by this engine we deem as 'our' portal**.

When assuming that internet users, unlike television viewers who idly click through channels, are active users who have decided before accessing the media which information they'd like to consume - is this still the case with Google's cross-ownership?

Let us not forget that Google.Inc is a private company whose shares are mainly owned by Western (US based) corporations. Google (the search engine) is now also powered by advertising. It makes me wonder how far the search results will reflect the company's long term plan for sustainability.

They have the power to integrate marketing into their search results, but will they use it? Will they consistently apply the idea of public interest and progressive corporate image into their marketing plan?

I argue that media, like any other mediums from guns to hammers, are neutral. It really depends on the user (and owner) to decide its effects. It is virtually impossible to, as the case with conventional media like TV and newspaper, regulate Google's information flow - as when dealing with the internet, we are dealing with transnational, international and/or global information flow. Therefore, I advocate for us being more critical, intelligent and literate Google users who also take into the account the probability of capital interest when scanning through the search results and not taking the idea of 'amount of hits' or 'site popularity' for granted.

At the end of the day, as argued by Karl Marx, dominance will always be challenged by the intellectuals (lit: orang yang berpikir) who realise a disparity of power.

It is up to us whether or not we would like to utilise that power.

For non communication science or media studies background:
* Political Economy, in communication science and media studies, relates to Marx's idea that power relation is apparent in information flow. Wikipedia: '-news outlets are now run by large corporations, they are under the same competitive pressures as other corporations. (...) the pressure to create a stable, profitable business invariably distorts the kinds of news items reported, as well as the manner and emphasis in which they are reported. This occurs not as a result of conscious design but simply as a consequence of market selection: those businesses who happen to favor profits over news quality survive, while those that present a more accurate picture of the world tend to become marginalized.' Recommended reading: Chomsky's 'Manufacturing Consent'.
**Agenda Setting is a theory by McCombs & Shaw which states that every (news) media has the power to decide what is important and how to think about it. For example, current issues covered by the Indonesian media lately involve the race for the president. Less coverage is done towards, for example, the current state in Rwanda.

1 comment:

lola said...