Blog Post

HASTAC Conference Notes: Keynote by Siva Vaidhyanathan


Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Technocultural Imagination

The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)

Courant: Vaidhyanathan cannot be introduced because everybody knows who he is already

            Known for the title, and it is a great title

            Crossover academic—publishes books that people read and gets into arguments with people beyond the academic world.  Slumming with us today.

            Scholar of intellectual property and its role in culture


Paul Courant’s (University Librarian at Michigan) history w/ Vaidhyanathan

  • Being in Bed with Google, because it is better than sleeping alone—a blog post written by the introducer
    • Siva wrote back with an enthusiastic objection
    • Led to Jeffrey Pomerance writing a blog post to argue for blogging as form of engagement
      • Alternative to standard slow-paced academic debates
  • Vaidhyanathan: Google and Google Books pose risks
    • Courant disagrees with him (Michigan is the home of Google Book Search), but he appreciates how fair is his argument (unlike most of the public discourse these days)
  • Courant is quoting himself in his introduction for Vaidhyanathan


Vaidhyanathan is tired of talking about his book (doing the sales pitch)

  • So this conference is a great opportunity—place where most exciting discussion about scholarly communication happen
  • Using his own experience as a case study—this is a meta talk
  • Vaidhyanathan just happened to finish his dissertation in 1999, which was a good time to discuss the Internet
    • Technocultural imagination
      • Phrase refers to a theoretical approach to role of technology in world
        • Inspired by C. Wright Mills (who wrote The Sociological Imagination)
          • Mills was worried that scientists were breaking off too small slices of world to analyze and therefore missing the point
          • Big distinction—that argument was brutal
          • Today, we haven’t calcified into size, so the debate is pretty jolly (scholarship at its best)
      • Don’t ignore the political, the social, the material
        • Get a sense of what happens in a machine when it digitizes sound or video (even if you can’t do it yourself)
        • Need to be able to give a facile description of the process
      • Requires a synthetic and ecological approach to technology
        • Technology is culture (move beyond arguments, “does technology drive culture)
        • He likes idea of technology as an extension (of body, of ideas)—McLuhan
      • We’re all just babies when it comes to these technologies, so our theories may be irrelevant soon, but that’s okay (when new paradigms make more sense)
        • Requires a good deal of patience and passion
  • “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”
    • How he wrote book—many ways that he failed with this project
    • Warns us that this tory may sound horrible at times
    • July 2009
      • Printed out 500 manuscript pages (after 4 years) and placed on counter in kitchen.  Sent to two editors
      • Asked his wife to read it
        • 4 hours later, she looked up and said, “why would anyone want to read this?”
        • she was right—it was horrible
        • it wasn’t cohesive, didn’t have a clear argument, didn’t have a systematic and consistent tone, too much passive voice
        • read like a series of disconnected blog posts-and there’s a reason—it was a series of disconnected blog psts
    • 2004: Google used to call its book project, “Google Print” (then Google Books Search, and now Google Books)
      • Partnering with libraries (like U of Michigan)
      • Lots of critics, particularly among legal scholars
      • Expansive reading of fair use, and @sivavaid had serious misgivings about their readings of fair use (remains concerned)
      • But it got him thinking about Google (only 6 years old in 2004)
        • Why was a 6-year-old company knighted as the resource for this project?
        • At that point, Google had been around for less time than Pitt and Aniston were married (awesome)
        • Constant move to trust corporations to do what is right, when some important functions should certainly be public
    • At time, wasn’t focused on writing a book about google, but kept itching at him
      • So started blogging at sivacracy (
      • “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”
        • This was google’s mission
          • Vaidhyanathan’s thought was, “who asked you guys?”
          • What an audacious statement
          • There’s a lot of power in that
          • Access—not so simple
          • Universal? There are serious problems with pretensions for universality
          • Then someone asks Sergei what perfect search engine would be like, his response: “it would be like the mind of God”
            • perfection of search was the goal
            • wife said, the thing that you are missing is that google seems to read your mind
            • this brought together strands of thought for him
              • why datavalance is so significant
              • how search works (moving toward increased localization and personalization)
              • seems like reading our minds in a comfortable way
    • So, started blog to explore: “The Googlization of Everything” (
      • He tried to write code himself, and really f’d that up
      • Writing a book in the open—seeking open peer review
        • What I didn’t know was that people who know more about this than I did this much better (i.e. Kathleen Fitzpatrick uses Comment Press—a much better system)
        • his blog featured comments at the bottom and all the problems that go with that
        • So this project was doomed to failure
      • Problems
        • How to write everyday (so blog had activity)
        • Writing became reactive—just responding to what others wrote, or what press published
          • Became like a news account
        • Very poor ways of limiting comment spam, trackback spam (huge problem)
        • Cory Doctorow gave talk about Facebook—we keep going back because it is like a skinner box—keeps giving us affirmations throughout the day
        •      that is role the blog played for him
      • He should have known that writing a series of blog posts would not add up to a book
        • But an advantage—got attention early, long before I had something of value to say
        • Did give him a bit of benefit of peer review, fact checking
        • Helped him get great book contract
          • After had done poorly with a  book for Basic Books
            • Didn’t want to do “slash and burn” style of nonfiction (i.e. Ann Coulter)
            • So serious nonfiction are thought of as “mid list”
        • Went with U of Calif press cause they seemed most excited about it (retained Commonwealth English rights for____someone else missed that)
    • If you decide to write a trade-like book, even for academic world, get this book: “Thinking Like Your Editor” (author is really smart agent)
  • Book
  • Argument against market fundamentalism and techno-fundamentalism
    • Market actors can solve all sorts of problems
    • Technology can solve ALL problems (even problems technology created)
    • Google as benevolent—quasi-religious force in our lives
      • Once had themes, was able to completely rewrite book in 6 months period
      • Almost nothing from first book remains
  • Methods—he has a PhD in American Studies, the un-discipline
    • Did his own journalism, engaged in public debates, read other journalists
    • Theories and influences (Rorty, Habermas, Dana Boyd (it is the people that matter), Bourdieu, Pam Samuelson (law prof at Berkeley—one of pioneers in critical copyright)
    • Cold email from UCalif that showed him at risk of losing contract (after sent 500 pages of crap after deadline): “so when are you going to send me the final manuscript?”
      • He went into a dark place—things were crashing down around him
      • So he read someone more depressed than him—Thorstein Veblen
        • He proposes that one group you can trust is engineers
    • Looks at other google books (Levy, Auletta, Jarvis, Stross, Batelle)
      • This was scary—so what was my space here, he thought
      • So focused on us, how society interacts with google
        • What if use google as lens through which to view world—to consider problems in world
  • Book out in Feb 2011 and by March 2011, was already out of date (Judge Chin rejected Google Books settlement)
    • He did have two different chapters written for either Chin instance
      • So had to write a different chapter down the middle (don’t know what will happen)
  • Another strange, bad thing: His British book contract was canceled after publisher learned of Auletta’s book on Google
  • Started getting invites to be on a.m. angry white guy radio (i.e. Dan the Douche)
    • Terri Gross didn’t want Vaidhyanathan (she wanted Auletta)
    • So he went to these interviews and tried to sound as white as possible
      • but he learned they all hate google—because it is cosmopolitan, coastal, educated
        • week before, Beck had done a tirade against google
        • so this was a weird moment


Courant asks about….something—missed this

  • Courant also comments—“mind of God, as long as it scales”—their engineering solution gets 90% of things right, then tries get 90% of the remaining ten percent right—if requires hand work…
    • Vaidhyanathan—google has been inviting hand work
      • Algorithm is distillation of set of value choices
        • Person writing decides at a degree of distance what should matter in a decision making process
        • I.e. i..e Google plans to favor high-quality content.
          • requires hand work (so human being is always there)
      • thinks we have moved beyond vulgar science moment in which cultural theorists were too cynical towards natural sciences (mid-90s)
  • Q: what is next book?
    • One of things that grew out of this project was a deep concern is that we are all subject to massive fraud w/ respect to corporate responsibility
    • He was in Prius, driving to Wholefoods to get fair use coffee--hah!
    • Pretensions to corporate social responsibility will be topics
      • Looked at intellectual history of it
      • Liberals have been snowed by it—sees hand of neoliberalism in it
      • Includes a critique of philanthropy
      • Be Evil: Manifesto for Misanthropy
        • We have evaded our political action
          • Think we can be an activist passively

1 comment

Karen, this is so wonderful. I had to miss this talk because I was in the middle of a fantastic conversation -- what a relief to be able to read your excellent and detailed description. I learned so much from this. Tremendous thanks and bravo!