Over the past few weeks, some changes at Google and some comments from its CEO have gotten me thinking about the effect the company is having on culture.
Now, to be clear, I am not part of that group of people – Nick Carr, Andrew Keen or Evgeny Morozov – who feel that the internet is ruining things. Quite to the contrary, I’m very optimistic about the promise of new technology to make the world better and fairer.
But some of what Google is doing these days is making me wonder whether large tech corporations are the ones to lead us into the future.
Google Wants Our Brains
Why? Well first was Eric Schmidt’s comments that they want Google to create “the age of augmented humanity“, in which Google becomes the so-called ‘third half of your brain’. And second was the introduction of Google Instant, an update to the search engine that produces results as you type.
As for the first, part of that is really exciting. I love the idea that technology will be used to make our lives better and, by getting mundane tasks out of the way, allowing us to focus on the things that count. But when taken in light of the switch to Google Instant, I’m perhaps more worried.
Google is the way hundreds of millions of people get information. Their search algorithm – the code that determines which results you see in which order when you do a search – is determined by a number of things: how many sites link to it; what kinds of sites link to it; how frequently the site is updated; and tons of other things that Google keeps secret.
But though Google’s algorithm is great, it’s also heavily skewed. Ever tried to find health information on Google? Like the nutritional benefits of avocados, or the best way to lose weight? It’s a mess of advertising and shoddy research. Ever asked a serious question¬† – like ‘how to deal with bullying’ – and been given a link from ehow.com, a site that requires no credentials for its writers?
Popular Isn't Always Better
The trouble is, Google’s technology works roughly by popularity. Though the algorithm is complex, what underpins that idea is that the thing that is most popular is necessarily the most good.
Why is that a problem? Well, the world – and the internet – is full of myths. Everyone knows you should drink 8 glasses of water a day, right? Or that we only use 10% of our brains? Or that Gutenberg was the first person to discover the printing press? Nope. All myths. (You need the equivalent of 8 glasses of water; we use all of our brains; the printing press also existed in China).
Yet Google these things and you will find thousands of results that back up the myths. Because they are popular and repeated, they become more and more prevalent. When popularity is the indicator, sometimes accuracy can fall by the wayside.
Google Instant makes this situation even worse. Because it makes search results instantaneous, the habit of searching through pages of links to find the best one gets chipped away. Instant search carries with it the subtle idea that the thing that comes first is often the best. The whole point of Instant is that it gets you to ‘the search result you want’ faster – and the one you want shows up on the first page.¬† But that isn’t true, often because the truth is something of a mix of popular myth and more rigorous fact – and sometimes, has nothing to do with popular opinion at all.
The Needs of The Many Overwhelm The Needs of the Few
We who are very ‘pro-tech’ often trumpet the democratic power of the web. If the people want it, we say, then it must be good. But it’s worth asking why people want things and whether the popularity that underpins Google and the internet in general is the best way to measure the worth of something. Do we search for things that challenge our world view, or confirm it? Do we search for news about Lindsay Lohan only because of human interest, or because the media feeds on our desire for salacious gossip about those who seem – or once seemed – like idealized versions of our dreams? Do we drool over the latest technology because it represents the excitement of the new, or because the tech media exploits our natural inclination for novelty?
Martin Heidegger, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, wrote a famous paper called “The Question Concerning Technology”. He used a bunch of very fancy language, but his point was this: technology isn’t a tool or a means to an end; it’s a way of changing our relationship to the world. It’s not that we use technology to accomplish tasks; it’s that technology changes how we see the world.
With Google Instant’s emphasis on the few popular results at the top and Google’s plans to become more tightly integrated into how we think, Heidegger’s premise may be cause for some reflection.