Collating information in a singular accessible place is Google’s essential philosophy but the search engine’s unbridled rise to the top of the greasy internet pole is also governed by its other lesser known principle — “Don’t be evil”.
Outlined in its code of conduct, this ethos is about “following the law, acting honourably and treating each other with respect” as well as providing “unbiased access to information”. But is the firm living up to this tenet? Or has it stepped on hundreds of layman toes in its quest to sideline any other competitor looking to make an impact on the world of search?
Although a gmail account is streamlined, effective and boasts a host of attractive features, it also has its problems. Fail to log out of your account and any Google searches you make thereon will be tailored and personalised to your previous searches. The variety, order and type of results that appear will be different from person to person and place to place. The results are circumscribed and bound by your opinions alone, creating a bubble of information that relates to your history.
Eli Pariser, President of the American political organisation MoveOn.org, brought this issue to light in his book The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you. He argued that “there is no standard Google anymore” and warned that “the race to know as much as possible about [internet users] has become the central battle of the era for internet giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.”
The key issue for Pariser was that these filtered searches, or ‘filter bubbles’, are not leading to ‘unbiased information’ — they are resulting in an information universe that is tainted by each individual user’s personality. People who like shoe shopping will find that their searches for ‘red heels’ only include brands that they already like instead of highlighting a mix of new suppliers and tradesmen. Web surfers who spend time reading about history may be faced with a chronology of Pakistani politics when they search for Imran Khan just because they have examined it days before. In a nutshell, the past will determine the future.
The aim of any search engine is to widen perspective so why is Google championing stagnancy and quashing the route to progression? Access to fresh ideas, opposing viewpoints and contrasting opinions are essential for growth in both the business and personal realm. Without stepping out into the world and viewing life for what it is, people will be left with only themselves for company and is that enough?
Google’s corporate philosophy pages state that “even if [users] don’t know exactly what [they’re] looking for, finding an answer on the web is our problem, not [theirs]. We try to anticipate needs not yet articulated by our global audience, and meet them with products and services that set new standards.”
The search engine’s co-founder Larry Page has also said that “the perfect search engine would understand exactly what [users] mean and give back exactly what [they] want.”
However, a man-made algorithm can never truly anticipate what people want — it can indeed provide a list of possible suggestions, which is more than adequate because it bestows the option of choice on search engine users. The issue is that Google is peppering search results with resources that it deems will best meet user needs en masse in anticipation of their future requirements. Public sentiment cannot be measured and individuality cannot be condensed into a mathematical formula. And thoughts that are not yet ‘articulated’ cannot be distilled into a neat package by an algorithm. Google’s gentle nudge could turn into a push and what will be left is content that prevents growth and impinges on privacy.
Algorithms do not have intuition. They cannot anticipate. They cannot foresee user needs and they are flawed, which means the idea of a “perfect search engine” will never come to light. At the same time, search engines have access to reams of personal information on each user. This almost humanises Google — it knows your likes and your dislikes just like your school friends, your mother and your colleagues. And it knows so much without asking; people give up their information freely. Handing over the key to a treasure chest of personal information is irresponsible and will only work to feed and replenish the filter bubble cycle.
Of course, search results will revert back to being unbiased once users have logged out of their gmail accounts but the truth is that most people use Google and send out emails at the same time, never once thinking that composing an email could affect their search results.
Maybe Google is not being evil; perhaps it is just being inconvenient. But whatever the underlying reason may be, bear it in mind to clear your cookies, log out of your account, open a new browser and go incognito.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2011.