Thursday, January 24, 2013

Taking on Teh Google in the Wrong Way

There are plenty of people out there leery of Google, and for some good reasons. Google is terrible when it comes to preserving userprivacy. Google, like many multinational companies, uses whatever strategy it can find to pay as little tax as possible. Google has done some questionable data scraping and manhandling of recalcitrant and come of a Federal Trade Commission investigation unfined but not smelling so rosy. 

But Harper’s Magazine Publisher John MacArthur’s Google takedown ranks as about the most awkward anti-Google bomb I’ve read since Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”

Throughout his short rant, MacArthur offers up weird ad hominem attacks, reveals he’s about the worst googler out there and, worst of all, sneers that Google (and the Internet, terms which he also seems to confuse and use interchangeably) is “just a bigger version of your neighborhood public library,” which, of course, the Internet is. 

Of course, everyone on the Internet is just going ape over his comments. 

The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield comically takes on MacArthur’s poor googling skills here, including Google’s supposed suppression of a French company’s ad-blocking software which, of course, shows up everywhere in Google search results, along with many, many other ad-blocking software programs, some free, some not. 
BuzzFeed takes on The Huffington Post’s habit of content scraping for web hits and SEO ranking as they steal wind from’s lengthy article on the history of American video arcades here, taking on “teh Google” in a much more intelligent fashion than does MacArthur. Yes, Google aids and abets content scraping. But MacArthur’s screed does little to build sympathy for Harper’s or any other dinosaur wailing about the impact of Internet culture especially when (as you’ll shortly see) he devolves his screed into playground name-calling.

(Conversely, folks at The Verge behaved oddly when they asked HuffPo to take their post down – does it really matter if visitors get to The Verge via HuffPo or some other source? Will they contact me to take down this link? Hardly. I’m a miniscule fish in a gigantic ocean. HuffPo is a big-time predator.)

Real-life Nyan Cat might agree with MacArthur -- RLNC wanted fame and comfort -- but mostly comfort. He got the fame, thanks to the Google posting his escape from animal control, but he got none of the comfort. He's probably still on the streets. Or dead. 

(Some take on his comments less effectively as does Brian Doherty at, who dismisses MacArthur’s rant with an ad hominem attack of his own that left me scratching my head.) 

That leads me to MacAurthur’s own ad hominem – he dismisses the likes of Google, Yelp, Bing, and Yahoo because their names sound childish. Unlike Harper’s Magazine, of course:

Thus proceeds the infantilization of the American public, hooked more than ever on superficial, unchecked information sometimes rewritten from more reliable, though uncredited sources. It’s no coincidence that Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Yelp sound like toddler gibberish from the Teletubbies.

Whenever I hear these silly corporate names invoked with sanctimonious awe, I imagine Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po, and Tinky-Winky singing their hit single “Teletubbies say ‘Eh-oh’ ” as they shake the change out of some two-year-old’s pocket. Come to think of it, Eric Schmidt’s new playmate, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, bears a more than superficial resemblance to Po.

Where will it end, as the dumbing down of America accelerates and Google becomes ever more dominant? A psychoanalyst friend tells me that listening to baby talk may be gratifying up to a point, but that constant subjection to it produces unconscious rage in adults.

Yeesh. Don’t listen to these guys! They have funny names! We published Moby-Dick! So doesn’t that make you a funny-name purveyor by association?

What MacArthur is probably most upset about is that his magazine is shrinking while Teh Google (meaning the Internet) grows. Harper’s charges for most of its content – which is its right – and thus sees less Internet traffic than they would otherwise because, yes, free is the default of the Internet – which is what he should really be ranting against, and he does to a degree:

Publishers and writers are belatedly recognizing the self-defeating nature of their own free-content platforms, as advertising is dispersed through the Internet in more and more fractionalized and lower-cost quantities. But these authentic content producers have been largely complicit in their own decline by aiding and abetting the childish belief that search engines are intended to educate (as opposed to making money for their owners) and that education via the Internet can bypass the necessary struggle of reading, analyzing, and connecting texts, in depth and over time.

I have to disagree with the final point he makes in this paragraph, however. I don’t look at the Internet as a way to “bypass the necessary struggle” of putting Thought A and Thought B and Thought C together. The Internet is a great help and aid in that struggle – because of it, I and my kids have access to, yes, the world’s biggest public library, at three desktop stations in our home, as well as a growing handful of portable stations.

I don’t deny that the Internet aids and abets piracy, and that many media companies reacted poorly in throwing what they had on the web for free – perpetuating the “Internet is free” model. I have no argument with MacArthur’s quibbles there. But many out there are proving they can adapt to the new model and succeed and actually grow into new audiences because of the reach and openness the Internet offers. (And that sounds like something Harper’s needs to do desperately.) But those who are solving the problem – and even reaping the benefits of piracy – are those who are looking at this new-fangled Internetty thing and trying to figure it out, not popping out of a hole, ranting, and then going back underground, like MacArthur.

Internet Guru Clay Shirky comically pointed out, after an acquaintance’s daughter looked behind a television “for the mouse” that, in today’s Internet age, any screen without a mouse is broken. MacArthur seems to be one of those who wants the Wizard of Oz to stay behind that curtain.

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