A common conception of the Internet is as something like a giant, non-physical library that is ever-accessible and stores more content than could ever fit in a single building. We access this plethora of knowledge via different search engines, which are tools that help us sort through the knowledge that’s perpetually at our fingertips.
Today, Sydney Morning Herald published an article about a “landmark decision” which ruled that Facebook is properly characterized as an “advertising medium” rather than a tool of communication – and so different, more stringent standards will be applied to online business content to ensure it complies with advertising regulations.
This made me think about the way we look at the web and the sites on it that we use – and the way we characterize this tool that forms a mammoth part of our lives.
We all know that there aren’t hundreds of malnourished slaves sitting in Google offices in the deep of hollow earth, manually sorting through old encyclopedias as our questions fire thick and fast to provide us with 70,700,000 results in 0.21 seconds ranked in some mysterious order of utility. Most of us, however, probably don’t regularly consider the algorithm that Google uses in order to calculate the correct responses to our searches.
The secret algorithm supposedly contains 500 million variables and 2 billion terms which adds to the illusion of the Internet as an all expansive reservoir of knowledge. The algorithm works out what we’re most likely to want, picks it out of the ether and ranks responses to our queries. The part where it starts to get really weird is when Google tailors the responses to our individual search histories to try and give us a more “intuitive” experience – (NOTE: how bizarre a concept of gaining knowledge it would be if we wanted it to be a comfortable, “intuitive” one; giving us the information we want to receive is a disturbing concept that presumably breeds closed mindedness and diminishes the likelihood of stumbling across differing opinions and contradictory views).
But this is arguably okay if it was clear from the get go that this was what going on.
If Google was: “Google, tells you what you want to hear” or “Google, makes you feel good about your own attitudes” – I’d feel less uncomfortable. But that is not the way most people look at this popular search engine. We look at it like an epic encyclopedia that conveniently picks out the most relevant responses for us. It’s deeply distressing that if I search a question on Google and you search the identical question, the results we are presented with would differ. We assume some sort of regularity. We assume an objectivity or a uniform standard – and that’s not what we are receiving at all.
Is it any wonder that Creationists stay Creationists, climate skeptics stay climate skeptics and Liberal voters stay Liberal voters (joking..:)) if Google panders to the beliefs and attitudes of the individuals who use it?
The advertising that keeps this machine churning is also targeted to your individual profile. If particular words are found regularly as Google trawls through your inbox you may see ads appear in your side bar inviting you to try out new weight loss pills, buy some unethical white goods from Ikea or invest in the latest iPad depending on your age, gender, sexuality, educational background, how frequently you email your mother – ANYTHING that gives them an indication of who you are and how you can be manipulated into spending your money.
I understand that information has to be selectively disseminated. And the breadth and depth of information available via the world wide web is extraordinary. It’s mind blowingly exciting, and I am so blown away that we have access to so much information instantaneously.
But it’s not free access. And I don’t just want to read about what Google thinks I want to read about. I don’t want challenging ideas removed from the algorithm. I am also afraid of the way in which this individual profiling could be exploited by those with money and power who want to disperse particular political or ideological ideas, and cause the suppression of others.
The Internet has been a remarkable tool in promoting new and radical ideas all of the world. But, as Google moves towards “paid inclusion” (where you spend money to increase the likelihood of your site appearing higher up in Google listings – but the rank is not necessarily guaranteed) the danger of exploitation and manipulation can be added to the problem that Google’s “intuitive experience” gives us tunnel vision and narrow minds