has blocked

Blocked by
Dr. Natasha Chuk,
Scholar and Author with a PhD in Media and Communication Philosophy

Why block Google isn’t just a website or a search mechanism. It’s not just a conglomerate technology company or a cloud computing service. It’s a web interface that has the ability to powerfully direct traffic and information quests, and thus ideologies and knowledge. It’s a standard, default internet search, communication, and document system for users, and therefore an unquestioned way of life.

It’s also become a verb – a testament to its ubiquity and overall acceptance – the conversational default to indicate searching and seeking answers online, however accurate, relevant, or biased they may be, as in ‘I don’t know the answer. I will google it.’ At a basic level, unexamined trust in Google’s responses to our queries is a habitually formed given. Google’s gargantuan, unbreakable hold on users, especially in western societies where it originated, continues to act as a perfect deception as it thwarts the democratic incentive it purports to have in its lack of transparency and its literally calculated system of information retrieval, whose highly classified algorithm favors speed and advertising revenue over veracity and equality.

Reports have surfaced in the last couple of years that Google produces wildly inaccurate and ultimately damaging results based, for the most part, on popularity. This is especially true with regards to emotionally charged, panicked searches about partisan issues or current events. The Verge’s Adi Robertson suggests it’s time we ‘stop trusting Google searches already’, and others have reported on the contributions that tech giants like Google (along with Facebook) have made toward the dissemination of inflammatory and divisive messages leading to the U.S. presidential election of 2016, and of the monetization of hate messages that target specific online groups.

Still others have written and warned about the highly problematic mishaps of YouTube (one of Google’s subsidiaries), including hosting abusive and inappropriate content and the more sinister effect of unregulated children’s programming on the site. The Guardian, James Bridle, Business Insider, and The Verge are a handful to have published reports on these issues. Google knows its algorithm is flawed, even broken, but reparations are difficult to calculate on this scale, especially when the company’s impulse is to fix its algorithmic disaster with more artificial intelligence, creating an even wider gap of misunderstanding between computer scientists and their convoluted creations. This kind of risk speaks to the company’s overall weakness when it comes to ethical, human-centered design, as former Google employee Tristan Harris has emphatically expressed since leaving the company in 2016.

This kind of carelessness can also be attributed to Google’s internal problems as a company more generally, particularly its unwillingness to consciously diversify its staff, opting instead to perpetuate the so-called bro culture of Silicon Valley, a palpable gender and racial bias in the industry brought to light recently by a class action lawsuit filed against the company by three female former employees, and as the non-profit pro diversity organization aimed at the tech industry, Project Include, seeks to spotlight.

Google’s problems are monumental in number and magnitude, which are precisely what make it so dangerous. Regardless of the promise of improvements, the company and its reach are simply too big and too deeply entrenched in our daily lives for us to easily dispose of them. Google is aware that its power is derived from the closed loop of network effects on which it thrives: the more people use it, the bigger its capacity; the bigger its capacity, the more people rely on it.

Founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google is now a major part of a conglomerate called Alphabet, which offers a range of services and products that are integral to the lives of users. This includes YouTube and Search (mentioned above), Gmail, Drive, Translate, Photos, Calendar, Maps, News, and many others. Google’s website has a dedicated page for educational products, encouraging interested parties to adopt their ‘free’ G Suite cloud ‘solution’, which has been tremendously effective.

Over the last decade, universities around the world decided to cut costs by switching from in-house e-mail services to Gmail. Following this success, other schools have followed. In the U.S., it is estimated that nearly half of primary- and secondary-school children use Google services by requirement in schools and at home. Additionally, Chromebooks, affordable laptops that run on a Linux-based Chrome operating system, have helped drive more traffic and support to Google’s Chrome browser, products, and services. These are some ways of demonstrating that despite any confusing algorithmic problems or questionable ethical practices, the company and its offerings are staples in users’ lives, and this begins at a young age.

With this in mind, it isn’t a question of whether or not there are viable alternatives to Google’s services; it’s whether or not we are willing to break free of its clutches of convenience, ease, and wide accessibility. It’s a matter of unpacking what that tradeoff entails and deciding it’s worth it, however difficult. Blocking access to, if only temporarily and somewhat selectively, forces affected users to reroute their searches, rethink their inquiries, and demonstrate to the tech giant that there are valuable alternatives to their services.

In that sense blocking for one week is a small but meaningful act of defiance and hope against a self-generating system that doesn’t favor alternatives but also doesn’t have the power to keep them away. The extent of the brief act of blocking access to a single but powerful portion of Alphabet’s domain won’t greatly impact the company’s bottom line, but it will serve as a symbolic gesture of resistance and temporarily disrupt the flow of information and internal logic of Google’s flawed algorithm. Moreover, for users, the immediate but temporary satisfaction of obtaining information to Google searches will be suspended, which will be inconvenient, annoying, and time-consuming, but will in turn promote new habits and behaviors, perhaps offline, that will be worth the tradeoff.

With that in mind, I suggest going elsewhere to find answers. Asking questions. Reading printed materials. Refusing to search as a default response to anything that can’t be instantly retrieved by memory. Not giving up. Jogging your memory. Re-engaging in conversation. And when the week passes and Google’s services are reinstated, don’t be seduced by the speed of retrieval. Question which answers appear first and why. Ignore autofill attempts to answer for you. Trust your own use of language and connection. And try again to go elsewhere just to prove that you can. One week without is enough to make our voices, though small and invisible, count.