The Rhetorics of the Information Society - Michael Jones at Future Media Fest

24 hours of video per minute

That's the rate at which digital footage is being uploaded to YouTube, according to Michael Jones' keynote opening keynote presentation at Future Media Fest. Jones, who is Chief Technology Advocate at Google, cited the number as part of his argument that digital communication technology is becoming ever more ubiquitous. Understandably, he saw Google as playing an important role in this ubiquitous information environment.

This image, of thousands of camera-phone eyes feeding days of video into Google as minutes tick by may, for some media theorists, call to mind the image of the Panopticon, the model prison made famous by French philosopher Michel Foucault, in which prisoners arranged in transparent cells at the perimeter had their every move watched by a concealed figure in a central tower. The Panopticon, Foucault explained, was designed to teach prisoners to internalize the values of their guards, because they never knew if a guard was watching, they began to watch themselves.

Is Google a modern day Panopticon, watching over us all, invisibly guiding, Foucault would say "disciplining," our behavior? Jones didn't think so. He went to great pains to describe Google as a passive entity. "We are your servant," he said at one point. At another, he claimed, "we don't make decisions, we take what humans do and we amplify it." As examples, he cited the ways in which Google tried to reflect the needs of its customers. He described how users of Google maps were active participants in the process of drawing the maps that Google served, especially in developing countries. Explaining the motivations of contributors to the Google maps project, Jones said ,"they didn't want me to have their map, they wanted their friends to have their map." Finally, in response to a questioner who asked how Google could claim that they were a reflection of already existing behavior when values were always embedded in technology, Jones replied that data harvested from users was used to develop the technology itself. For example, he explained that the size of buttons in Google's Gmail webmail service had not been designed by some top-down process of expertise, rather different button sizes had been provided to different users, and the ideal button size had been determined based on data collected on the users' reaction times when using the various buttons.

All this, should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. Anytime an executive officer of major corporation argues that his company is basically powerless, it suggests the company has become aware of popular anxieties about its power. Certainly, this is true for Google. Jones' claims that Google is passive and reflective also seem to overlook an observation that he made earlier in his presentation, when he noted that, "Henry Ford changed the way cities were designed." Just as the automobile transformed the American urban landscape, leading to, among other things, the rise of the suburbs, so too, it is difficult to imagine that a technology as powerful as search could fail to transform our patterns of behavior.

That said, however, I think that Jones' apology for Google makes clear important differences between the 19th century technology of the Panopticon and the 21st century technology of search. Unlike the Panopticon, where a human agent stood in the tower and imposed rational, intentional values on the confined prisoners, encouraging them to adopt regimented work habits and abandon dangerous transgressions, nothing human could possibly process the surveillance performed by Google. Just to watch a day's worth of YouTube video would require a three-year effort! Instead, what seems to stand in the center of Google's apparatus of search (to the extent that there is such a thing) is something else entirely, something lashed together out of computer algorithms and pre-conscious thought. Something that adjusts buttons without us noticing and sums together collective contributions to make a map.

This should not be, in and of itself, frightening. The mastery of human consciousness was always a bit of an illusion. However, I do think we may need to do some reflection about who the mechanisms of search benefit, and what larger transformations this shift from intention to algorithm may entail.

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