Friday, September 23, 2005

The commodification of knowledge (and knowledge work) via Google

A short article in the New York Times this week discusses the "Google Answers" service where users ask a question, propose a fee for the answering of that question, and await an answer from self-styled experts who (presumably) use Google to find the answer. Google of course gets a cut of the e-bay-like transaction:

When David Sarokin finishes his day job as an environmental scientist in Washington, he heads home to a second batch of questions. He is one of several hundred humans who work for Google, answering questions from users who aren't satisfied with their results from the automated engine that made Google famous.

The queries that users bring to Google Answers ( touch on all parts of life, but they usually cannot be reduced to a few keywords. One incoming freshman at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., for instance, asked for help finding a parking spot near campus. A stargazer asked the name of the two planets rising early in the northwest sky, and a homeowner wanted a "romantic and literary" name for a new house.

Google Answers is one of several services creating an online commons for impromptu research., for example, markets the services of traditional professionals like tax lawyers and computer technicians. And some sites, like, maintain a no-fee exchange of questions and answers - though tipping is permitted.

On Google Answers, Mr. Sarokin scans the list of new questions frequently and chooses those he feels he can answer. In some cases he uses his scientific background, but in others he just relies on a well-honed talent as a general researcher.

"We get questions both merely odd, and others pretty incomprehensible, and I tend to steer clear of both," he said. "But now and then, I can't resist."

The oddest of all, he says, had him trying to determine what female vampires wear and "how to defend oneself, as the questioner felt the need to do so would soon arise."

For this answer, Mr. Sarokin received 75 percent of the $4 that the questioner paid Google. The questioner sets the price, and the researchers must decide whether the fee merits the time they are likely to invest in providing an answer.

The questions stay active for 30 days, and the user can increase the fee if no one seems interested. If the answer is excellent, a questioner can add a tip not shared with Google - a practice that about three-quarters seem to follow, according to one survey by the researchers.

Mr. Sarokin once earned $120 for researching the need for a scientific expedition floating in the pack ice in the Arctic. Another effort brought $25 for turning up data on the number of computer crimes committed in 2004. Google imposes a cap of $200 on the fee, and it is not uncommon for people to offer the maximum if they need the answer quickly and want to grab the attention of the researchers.

Colin Colby, the Bates freshman who needed a parking space near campus, said he was happy to pay $200 for an answer that came within 72 hours with the name of a woman who had parking spaces to rent.

The interesting thing to me is how such a service, if it became popular (which, in all honesty, I kind of doubt), would affect the other specialized services that Google is engaged in -- such as "Google Scholar" which attempts to return web resources that have only been produced through the peer-reviewed, corporate-academic research process. Or the new Google attempt to digitize all of the print materials in the University of Michigan library (among others) and provide an indexable search to their contents (but not their copyrighted contents themselves) to web-seekers. Might these bits of Google-mediated information be assigned a dollar value through the Google engine as well?

We have a long tradition of subsidizing expert information-seekers for the benefit of all, without regard to ability to pay, in our society -- the library reference desk is a prime example. We also have a long tradition of relying on trained experts -- like, say, an engaged and inquisitive press -- to seek out socially-useful answers. Have these committments and expectations evaporated? What about the expectation that public education and university education will train individuals to use tools -- like libraries, and newspapers, and, yes, Google itself, for crying out loud -- to ask and answer important questions for themselves? Would broad popularity of, and endemic reliance upon, "Google Answers" undermine such efforts?

Dystopian or utopian scenario, depending on your positionality: Will the next generation of Google-groomed university students begin to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of classes they attend, based on the Google-market value of the facts that they learn there? Will chastened university research review committees find that they have to evaluate a faculty member's market-based output in facts and trivia, as calculated through the Google filter, in making a case for tenure? Or will state legislatures abandon even more of their funding role for public education and research, claiming that teachers at all levels should act as entrepreneurs, selling piecewage facts, figures, and parables over Google-affiliated school web sites in order to supplement sub-minimum-wage salaries?

OK, maybe I'm having a science-fiction moment here. But the question I'm trying to illustrate (if not "answer") is -- how do information valuing and commodification practices in one area of social/political/economic life affect the commodification and valuing of information labors in other areas of social/political/economic life? Answer me that, Google.

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