Thursday, 16 June 2011

Google is a whirlpool looking for a new fool

On the face of it, the internet, search engines, and Google in particular have been a great boon to writers and others who do research as a necessary part of their work. Indeed, who would deny it? Remember the old days when you camped yourself in the library for hours on end, leafing through books that often delivered scant reward – insufficient or out-of-date information – or fiddled with spools of microfiche for that elusive news article? No question, we should be duly grateful for the luxury of sitting at home (using the same machine that we use to set down our work) with the ability to trawl the world’s resources rapidly and at no great expense. But are we being allowed to make the most of this wonderful opportunity?

Until recently, I had assumed that Google’s stupendous page rank algorithm was giving me the best, most authoritative, most useful selection from the vast sources of information on offer, provided I got my search terms right. That was before I became aware of the argument presented in Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble which reveals that Google, far from facilitating an expansion of my world view in proportion to the expansion of available resources, is in fact limiting me by my own previous choices. Pariser calls this a bubble; I prefer to think of it as a whirlpool, sucking me into its ever-decreasing circles.

Until recently, I had assumed that the spread of results I got from typing a query into my Google search box would be exactly the same as another’s results, provided we both entered the same search terms. It has taken Pariser to explain to me that this is not true. Apparently Google uses 57 signals – ranging from where the browser is located to what items I have searched for before – to decide what site-links it is going to offer me. The process is concentric because the more I use the internet for everything from information gathering to purchasing the more Google gets to know about me, and the more bounded I become by the range of options it presents that are in easy reach.

Moreover (and this I suppose I did know, but never really thought through the implications) Google is not in the business of providing me with the best information; it is in the business of delivering me to its advertisers, sponsors and funders – the ones who pay the piper. The most obvious example is the sponsored links that appear on the top of one’s results page (perversely, I avoid these); but Google has much more subtle ways of using the data I have previously provided to get me to places based on their commercial imperatives rather than my intellectual curiosity or professional need. Because their behaviour marketing is invisible, and because I’m generally unaware that my choices are being made for me in this way, I am off my guard to a degree that I would not be if I was, say, reading a newspaper with a known political viewpoint, or speaking to a consultant whom I know has a vested interest in selling me his product or service. Google can fool me into thinking I’m making the decision without such influences, and that makes me the greater fool.

And of course it’s not only Google that’s doing it. For me, Amazon is another major whirlpool, as are iTunes and a number of others whose filters and ‘recommendations’ are drawing me into a subterranean version of my world where increasingly what I see are distorted or manipulated versions of my own reflection.

As a consumer, I may welcome some guidance to my purchases based on my known preferences – it can save time and effort, and help me get to things I might want or didn’t otherwise know existed, though it also reduces the opportunity for serendipitous pleasures – but as Pariser argues, what might be good for consumers is not necessarily good for citizens.

Nor does it make the best use of the global promise of the internet, which has the potential of widening our horizons and putting us in instant touch with treasures of learning previously unobtainable. It’s a misuse of the most powerful instrument of our age. We have embarked on a world-wide adventure but  we have put ourselves in the hands of a navigator we can’t really trust. There are oceans to explore, but the more we sail on them, the greater the perils of the whirlpool.

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