During his plenary address a Theorizing the Web 2011, entitled “Why the Web Needs Post-Modern Theory,” George Ritzer was deeply critical of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s (2011), The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), a book which has received a great deal of media attention in recent months, for it’s lack of theoretical foundations. The editors of the Cyborgology obtained the following excerpt from Ritzer’s paper:
The nature of, and problems with, a modernist approach are clear in Siva Vaidhyanathan’s (2011), The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). We were drawn to this book because the title is similar to, if not an outright rip off of, two similarly modernist books written by one of the authors of this paper- The McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer, 1993/2011) and the Globalization of Nothing (Ritzer, 2003/2007). Thus we know from whence we speak in seeing Googlization as a modernist work and as such in understanding its liabilities (and strengths). In addition, while Ritzer’s works (mentioned above) use modern theories and ideas (e.g. rationalization) to deal with such clearly modern phenomena as the fast food restaurant and, more generally, the world of consumption, Vaidhyanathan employs modern ideas (not full-fledged theories) to deal with the arguably postmodern world of the Internet, Web 2.0 and especially Google.
Googlization can be seen as a modernist work in various ways. For example, Vaidhyanathan draws, although very superficially, on the ideas of a number of modern thinkers such as Veblen, Dewey and Habermas, but the work is virtually devoid of any discussion of postmodern thinkers and ideas. There is one exception, a brief mention of the work of Richard Rorty, but instead of drawing out its postmodern implications it is discussed in the context of the modernist concern for truth. This is related to the fact that Vaidhyanathan implicitly sees Google, as well as the Internet in which it exists, as modern phenomena and therefore as amenable to a modernist analysis. For example, the book offers a “centered” (as opposed a postmodern decentered) analysis with Google seen as exemplifying all of the positive (e.g. “liberty, creativity, and democracy”) and negative trends (e.g. “blind faith in technology and market fundamentalism”) associated with the Internet today (Vaidhyanathan, 2011: xiii). More importantly, Vaidhyanathan employs the most modernist of modernist approaches by employing throughout the book a grand narrative of the “googlization of everything”. By googlization, Vaidhyanathan (2011: 2) means that “Google has permeated our culture” and by everything he means, well, that everything, especially “us” (including the googlized subject and memory), “the world”, and “knowledge”. To this list, he adds toward the end of the book the googlization of higher education, students, scholarship, and research. Had the book gone on further, we would have been treated to endless examples of googlization.
In his conclusion, Vaidhyanathan (2011: 205) offers as a replacement for googlization his own grand narrative of the “Human Knowledge Project” which has a “single realizable goal in mind: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”. In fact, in articulating this highly modernist goal, Vaidhyanathan is self-consciously using Google’s own mission statement to create a grand narrative that, he hopes, competes with Google’s while leading to a system that deals with many of the problems created by googlization.
We should also add that while some theorists and theoretical ideas are mentioned, The Googlization of Everything is a largely atheoretical work. Although it is published by the University of California Press, it is clearly a trade book aimed at a larger, non-academic audience. The result is that it is highly superficial and devoid of the insights that might have emerged from a more serious intellectual engagement with modern theory, to say nothing of postmodern theory.
Of note, Vaidhyanathan recently visited the University of Maryland campus to give a talk that, like his book, was largely descriptive and lacking in theory. University of Maryland graduate student and past Cyborgology contributor Daniel Greene posed a critical question that Vaidhyanathan admittedly had no response for. “You are asking me to think?”, Vaidhyanathan (half?) joked. After the talk, Cyborgology editor Nathan Jurgenson invited Vaidhyanathan to engage Ritzer’s criticism via Twitter. Here is Vaidhyanathan’s response:
We have Ritzer’s criticism and, as yet, no real response from Vaidhyanathan (though, we will edit this post if there is one). Video of Ritzer’s full presentation streams below, with his criticism of Vaidhyanathan beginning around the 4:25 mark: