Google Reader & Google Keep

Recent events seem to have inspired some folks – such as the influential pundit Om Malik – to rethink their allegiance to all things Google.  First Google decided to abandon the popular Google Reader; and now they are asking users to use a new app, Google Keep. Malik isn’t falling for it this time: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Google may think it can waltz into a market that Evernote and others have staked out, but I’m not going to dance.”

My experiment to March Away from Google wasn’t out of disappointment with the company; it was merely a thought experiment that turned into a real experiment, to see how hard it would be to cut Google out of my life. But now that Google has annoyed its users and undermined their confidence in its stability, there are new opportunities for users to reconsider their dependence on the company’s products and explore the many alternatives to Google. Google’s antitrust lawyers are certainly right that competition is only one click away; but one has to wonder why the company’s strategists are pushing loyal users toward the competition.


Morozov’s Provocations

Even though the faculty here in the College of Arts & Letters are on spring break, we’re still chatting away over email, sharing stories and ideas.  A number of us have really been enjoying the writing of Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (2013) and The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011).

Morozov writes with a great deal of insight and provides a sharp and provocative counter-balance to the hype that is ritualistically produced by the high-tech Silicon Valley types.  In a recent column in the New York Times, for example, he concludes by sharing a 1939 observation from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset:

“I wish it would dawn upon engineers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer.”

From the perspective of STS scholars, such a statement seems commonsensical and mundane.  Engineers also should be students of philosophy and history, of literature and politics.  Yet Morozov (like Ortega y Gasset before him) reminds us that we have a lot of work to do before leaders in Silicon Valley – not to mention the next generations of American engineers and technologists – act accordingly!

Marching Away from Google

In 2008 and 2009 I spent one month – the month of March – avoiding all Google products.  I thought about this exercise as “ an experiment in choice.”

Why?  I had a variety of reasons:

- Antitrust. Regulators in Europe and the United States were investigating (and continue to investigate) if Google had violated antitrust laws.  Google and its defenders responded with a slogan: “On the Internet, competition is one click away.”  I wondered how true this slogan was; and, more to the point, if switching to a competitor was as easy as one click on my keyboard.

- Addiction. Scholars and science writers are increasingly concerned that we are “addicted” to our devices, our apps, and our lives on the screen.  This strikes me (and many others) as an odd use of a clinical term – addiction.  What does it mean to be addicted to a search engine?  Is it as hard to quit “googling” as it is to quit, say, shooting up heroin?

- Language. I began to get annoyed that my colleagues and friends were using “Google” as a verb, and that web users had come to think of “search” and “google” as synonymous.  These struck me as two important facets of discursive life in the 21st century, and it seemed just as true in this case as any other that it is worth reflecting on the words and language we choose—choose—to use.

- Competition. Following on the last point, there are many other search engines and application providers out there.  For many of us, using Google is familiar and easy. But what else is out there?  Why should I think that Google’s search results (or maps, or images, etc.) are better than anyone else’s?  See for example and

Throughout March 2008 and 2009, I kept “field notes” and reported on what I experienced and learned on a blog, which I called “March Away from Google.”  Here are some things that I learned:

- Switching to Google’s competitors is not always easy. Google is embedded in a variety of application, system, and even hardware defaults.

- Even if I can make a choice on my own to stop using Google products, other people like to use them: collaborators post things on Google docs, friends make customized Google maps, institutions use Google customized search, etc.  One lesson here is that an individual is not an island: there are cases when other people make choices for me, or constrain the range of choices I can make.

-  Many of the questions raised in my whimsical little experiment have deep academic and personal significance.  See my blog entry from March 1, 2009 for a longer recap of the issues.

I had toyed with the idea of Marching Away from Google again in March 2013, but the beginning of the month came and went.  And, to be honest, it seemed like too much work to document getting Google out of my life again: I’ve got ongoing projects that use Google docs and Google maps, and the dimensions of antitrust, addiction, and language that motivated me in 2008 and 2009 had only gotten richer and more complex.

So even though I don’t quite have it in me to quit Google for the month, I absolutely believe that the topic continues to have deep relevance.  As such, it seems like an ideal way to kick off a new discussion on this blog, which is an occasional blog of the Program in Science & Technology Studies, a new program in the College of Arts & Letters at the Stevens Institute of Technology.  I have invited my colleagues to weigh in on what I see as the leading concepts of this exercise – Antitrust regulation, addiction, and language – and, if they dare, to spend at least a little bit of March marching away from Google.

Please watch this space for their comments; and please, post comments of your own!

Andy Russell
Director, Program in Science & Technology Studies
College of Arts & Letters

American Society for Environmental History Panel 2013

Jen Hoyt, Ph.D., Department of History, Samford University, has put together a panel entitled, “Between the Park and the Shantytown: Latin American Cities and the Environment during the Twentieth Century” for the ASEH 2013 Meeting in Toronto, Canada, 3-6 April, 2013. Participants include Hoyt, Smaford University; Dawn Digrius, Stevens Institute of Technology; Shawn Miller, BYU; Andrea Moerer, University of Minnesota.

This panel explores the tensions between development and nature in Latin American cities during the twentieth century. Cities represent a particular environmental challenge as leaders and residents struggle to balance the man-made habitat with natural elements. The desire to find equilibrium often stems from the immediate need to sustain the urban masses. The health and livelihood of city dwellers require incredible inputs of energy and resources, as well as opportunities to seek respite in sunlight and fresh air. The sprinkling of green among the sprawling concrete, steel, and glass also reveals a deeper desire to create a very particular vision or aesthetic. Carefully sculpted parks, tree-lined avenues, and ordinances to stem the rising tide of pollution attempt to counteract uncontrolled growth and to present a modern, progressive appearance. The creation of a balanced urban environment does not come easily, however.

Those in power must harness the means necessary for altering the cities and convince urbanites of the exigency of reforms. Unforeseen outcomes often highlight the illusion of control as well as the artificiality of many environmentally-driven actions. From Rio de Janeiro to Mexico City, from Buenos Aires to Quito, these four papers offer unique perspectives on environmental policies in some of Latin America’s largest and most important cities. Each presentation examines particular undertakings meant either to manage resources or to create a specific impression. While each approach varied in its success, the projects underscore the challenges of directing urban development and incorporating nature into the built environment.