Last month, John R. MacArthur fired off what may be the single dumbest old-media-blame-new-media anti-Google screed ever to post in the pages of the Providence Journal. In case you missed that gem, MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's Magazine, remedied that situation by reposting his piece on the publication's Web site.
I'll confess to being a Harper's fanboy, someone who has read the magazine starting back in the day when it was edited by the brilliant Lewis H. Lapham. It's been a staple of American intellectual life since its start in the mid-19th century. All the more remarkable, then, to read MacArthur decry what he calls "Google's systematic campaign to steal everything that isn't welded to the floor by copyright -- while playing nice with its idiotic slogan 'Don't be evil.'"
Larry Page and Sergey Brin as 21st-century incarnations of Butch Cassidy and Sundance. Do tell:
This for-profit theft is committed in the pious guise of universal access to "free information," as if Google were just a bigger version of your neighborhood public library. Acceptance of such a fairy tale lets parasitic search engines assert that they are "web neutral," just disinterested parties whose glorious mission is to educate and uplift.
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.
"We'll do it for you," say Larry, Sergey, and Eric, and it will all be free! Now Larry, Sergey, and Eric are billionaires, while the average writer and teacher can barely make ends meet.
So while Google's getting ever richer, teachers and "the average writer" are fated to hang out with the bums on the Bowery. MacArthur then flags the inevitable spillover effect from his insalubrious condition: the increasing "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."
Actually, when he speaks on conference calls Sergey more reminds me of Kermit the Frog than a Teletubby. But this essay is one non sequitur followed by another as MacArthur seeks to establish a nexus between the dumbing down of America and Google's increasing domination of the media landscape. Apparently, Google plays favorites, giving priority to "free content" sites over those with paywalls. That might have something to do with the way Internet crawling works. As Techdirt's Tim Cushing notes, if Google can't crawl it, it won't appear.
Where does all this point? MacArthur suggests that the cyber downtrodden may finally get so fed up that they could even take to the barricades in a Jean Valjean moment:
This unending assault of babble potentially could lead to revolutionary conditions in which the new writer-teacher proletariat rises up to overthrow the Internet oligarchy and the politicians and government agencies who protect it.
That fits with the rest of an absurd indictment of the Internet. I doubt this will be the last jeremiad you hear as more media organizations fade away as readers go elsewhere. But while honest men and women can disagree honestly about the extent of the"infantilization of the American public" or the dumbing down of the culture, it's embarrassingly wrong to blame Google for the popularity of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," without first knowing the basics about Internet search and the link culture.