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Reviewed by:
  • Google Me: One-Click Democracy by Barbara Cassin
  • Peter Krapp
Google Me: One-Click Democracy. By Barbara Cassin. Translated by Michael Syrotinski. (Meaning Systems.) New York: Fordham University Press, 2017. 176 pp., ill.

Should one wish for a better Google, or for a fundamentally different model? Part breezy pamphlet, part scholarly diatribe, this is a deeply learned polemic about the problematic ideology of solutionist corporate disruption and its effects on knowledge generation and preservation. These radical challenges confront not only academia but also fundamentally change public engagement with information, as Barbara Cassin demonstrates. While there have been several academic and popular books that criticize Google in particular and net monopolies in general, few are as informed by philological circumspection, sustained attention, and philosophical sophistication. Building her argument on the basis of online search, Cassin investigates Google's PageRank algorithm as well as the Internet Archive and Alexa, Project Gutenberg, and Wikipedia, to interrogate claims made about the transformative impact of the internet. Cassin's polemic was originally published in French as Google-moi: la deuxième mission de l'Amérique (Paris: Albin Michel, 2007). But the original subtitle's allusion to an influential French view of the US here gives way in the English version to an invocation of commercial seduction and exploitation by Silicon Valley. The translator's circumspect preface situates this volume among other critical takes on the advertising monopoly that took over so many other functions since its inception in 1996 at Stanford. From experiments in weighted ranking, Google rapidly grew into one of the handful of globally dominant companies engaged in surveillance capitalism, expanding from search into news, email, browsers, mobile communications, social networks, and many other products. As Cassin's foreword to the English translation attests, much has happened within and around Google since the book's publication in 2007 (and one might add that strong alternatives now exist in search [End Page 470] email, and browsing). Nonetheless, Cassin's untimely meditation on Google is deeply thought-provoking. It is not only aided by incisive translator's notes, but also by Cassin's foreword, which invokes her previous work on what she calls untranslatables: exploring semantic and syntactic differences between fifteen languages with an emphasis on the supposedly porous and invasive discipline of philosophy. Her untranslatables are not symptoms that are not translated, but that one never stops trying to translate—and her interest in what their slippages may imply or betray is arguably also at work in her contemplation of what Google proposes to 'organize the world's information'. Cassin's sidebars on philosophical terminology are valuable demonstrations of the conceptual armoury she wields, as for instance in drawing a distinction between seeking the truth or joining current popular opinion. The core of the book directly tackles Google's 'mission statements'—meticulously parsing each term in philological as well as philosophical registers—butalsoaddresses questions of copyright, privacy, and censorship. It is fortuitous that this excellent English translation appears just as more attention is paid across the globe to the mounting costs, particularly to individual users, of nefarious search bubbles, exploitative personal data aggregation, invasive advertising, and a shrinking private sphere.

Peter Krapp
University of California, Irvine


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pp. 470-471
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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