How Much Does Google Shape What We Know?

Google Data Center near Atlanta, Georgia, US (copyright Google, retrieved from Der Spiegel)
A data center, owned by Google near Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.),  represent a 
real-world image of the powers shaping what we know and how we know it.
German weekly Der Spiegel, which is sometimes referred to as The New Yorker of Europe, ran a long piece this month all about Google. The magazine translated the article into English with the title "A Visit to Google Land: The Intransparent Methods an Internet Giant," and ran it publicly on Der Spiegel Online International.

The article gave a long scope summary of some of Google's legal battles in Europe and the U.S. with regards to the antitrust suits in particular. The authors cited a few clear cut examples of businesses and organizations that feel Google has treated unfairly by lowering how their Web pages rank in Google's search results. On page 2, for example, the authors explain how Google maps in Germany doesn't necessarily show the most direct train route or lowest fares for rail travel, due to a partnership it made with one particular rail carrier, Deutsche Bahn, whose routes and fares are promoted while others are suppressed, even if they would be "better for the user" (a phrase Google often uses in defending its practices, though clearly not in this case).

While the Der Spiegel's staff does a fine job of explaining the lawsuits at large and giving a few specific  insights into how businesses are affected, and even putting real names and faces to the people who run those businesses being hurt by Google, I don't think the articles goes deep enough in explaining why some of Google's tactics are truly harmful... and not to businesses and organizations, but to individuals and what I'm going to call "societal knowledge," which is not the same as "public knowledge."

Let's say "public knowledge" is open access to knowledge, which Google has radically enhanced for the better over its short lifespan as a company. "Societal knowledge" on the other hand, I'm going to say is what communities come to believe due to exposure. Access and exposure are not the same thing. Google gives outstanding access to information. Any user can drill down through page upon page of search results. Exposure, on the other hand, is what we're talking about when we say that only the first page of Google search results matter, and many businesses will go further to clarify that the top three results on the first page are the only ones that truly matter. Those top three results are "exposed" to people. It's what they see.

One of my favorite TED Talks, by Eli Pariser called Beware the online "filter bubble" (embedded below) explains how Google modifies the order in which results appear per individual user. If people with certain commonalities--say, middle-income white Americans living in urban areas--tend to have similar quantifiable characteristics as determined by Google, which is likely, then this communities will have a similar filter bubble. That's what's really detrimental about some of Google's practices, in my opinion.

I think we're still in the very early days of the Internet and that a lot of these issues will play out over the next several decades. Some of the solutions will come from governments and regulatory bodies. Some will be innovations by businesses. Some will come about due to practices of users, how they choose to find information and what sources they use. Users are savvy, and the savviest ones will adapt first. Business are innovative and the most innovative ones will shake up the search landscape one way or another. But societies are less savvy and less embracing of innovation. Societies and communities at large change more slowly. So it will take time to see the fruits of a radically shift in how we search and how we find information online, but I think it's already starting to happen.

Cash Poor, Kitchen Rich

A glimpse of my new kitchen,
with one hole for a missing cabinet.
In March, Boyfriend and I bought an apartment. We definitely view home-ownership as an investment and crunched a lot of numbers before deciding to buy.

We knew before we took the place, an enormous one-bedroom in Sunnyside, Queens (New York), that the kitchen needed work. What we didn't know was it would be impossible to do all the work piecemeal. Without getting into the details (I'll save that for another post when it's really really all done), it was like a three-dimensional puzzle, where all the parts lock into place precisely and fall apart if even one piece is jiggled from where it belongs. The broken oven, the floor tiles, the dropped claustrophobic ceiling all knit together. Change one, and you'll have to change them all.

And change them all we did.

We gutted that kitchen down to the studs. Today, the last cabinet will be installed. The final piece was stalled because the manufacturer initially built the wrong size cabinet. But it arrives today.

I'm excited to have a completed and usable kitchen again, but I'm pretty broke at the moment. My friend and I were chatting the other night about how I'm tightening the belt for a while, and he said, "You're not broke. You're just cash-poor," and I had to remind myself, "Oh right. It's an investment."

Indeed: cash-poor and kitchen-rich.

P.S. We still need to paint.

Layers and Storytelling

This blog's focus is about to expand. I'll explain a little further down how this photo is related.

I've been hinting for a while that, as far as my own writing goes, technology is becoming as important a topic as food. If you're new to this blog or don't know me well, here's a quick summary:

Brief Background and Summary
By day, Monday through Friday, I'm a full-time writer at PC Magazine. Mostly, I test and evaluate software products and write reviews of them. I also have a weekly column about digital organization called Get Organized.

While I consider myself a technology writer and journalist, I fought it for a long time because I wanted to be a food writer instead. All my early jobs, in high school and college, were in the food services industry. I wrote (and edited) about food a little bit professionally, but it's tough, highly competitive, and not often a full-time gig. Full-time employment has always been important to me because I grew up kind of poor and now that I'm an adult, I can't imagine choosing a life that didn't provide steady income, health insurance, and a stable and predictable routine.

I got into technology writing and editing because 1) that's where the jobs were when I graduated college, 2) I was willing to get my foot in the editorial door anyway I could, 3) my confidence led to me believe that I could figure out things that I didn't already know. And largely, I've done all right.

My interest in technology has become more important to me over the years for another reason: I'm female.

Women still aren't abundant in the technology field, even as journalists. At PC Magazine, my editors and colleagues have all boosted my confidence ten fold by treating me like the "expert" I'm supposed to be. (And on that note, I found this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy inspiring, particularly toward the end when she says, "fake it 'til you make it.")

I have opinions about technology and how it affects people and societies, and their relationships. I have insights that other technology "experts" don't, party because I'm female, but partly because I grew up poor and I can imagine daily struggles that affluent people just don't know exist.

The Blog's Focus is Expanding
More and more, when I think about what it is I really want to write -- and I spend a lot of time thinking about that -- I home in on something related to technology, usually from a social sciences perspective, but not always. And they're usually big-picture ideas, like "Does having a long history with email prevent people from seeing the value of social networking platforms?" and "How much can online communication and socialization supplement or perhaps even replace live social interaction?"

In addition to wanting to write more about my interests as they relate to technology, I'll also expand to talk a little more about daily life.

Let me talk about picture at the top of this post now.

It's a copper-colored lighting fixture. A lamp.

But as you look closer, the reflection shows me and my camera, and a runway outside the glass behind me. It's at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, or more specifically, at a cafe inside Schiphol where Boyfriend and I slurped coffee and ate chocolate while waiting to board another plane. We were in transit, on our way from here to there, stopping for a moment, taking it in. What I like about the photo is how you can uncover some of that story just by looking through the layers.

That's what I intend to do on this blog, too: start looking at more layers, beyond jotting down recipes and writing about restaurants, to put tell a larger story.

I hope you'll come with me.

What Really Happened at the eBay Event

eBay hosted a press event earlier this week. I attended. I wrote my little summary news story about how eBay is redesigning its site, adding new services, and starting to mirror a lot of what Google and Pinterest do.

What I didn't write about was my visceral reaction to the presentation.

Great press events put polished performers on swanky stages. eBay's did. It took place in New York City in this amazingly cool space in Chelsea, very close to Chelsea Markets. The space was a blank slate, and eBay built a room for the presentation, an entryway with buffet tables of coffee, juice, pastries, and tall dessert parfait glasses filled with layers of yogurt, fruit, and granola. The presentation room was rounded, with white walls in every direction acting as projection screens, where images of the speaker's eBay purchases were projected while some of them were speaking, enticing you to look at all their beautiful stuff. Even the white leather chairs for guests projected the image that eBay put a lot of thought into how this day would play out; you could spin in them and see everything projected on all the wall surfaces, even the parts behind you.

What enraged me, though, was the storytelling.

eBay has a unique marketplace. It's huge. It's 11 years old. It's international. People buy things on eBay that they can't find anywhere else. And incredible stories live in those purchases. But to me, an incredible story is someone buying medical equipment that a hospital told them they couldn't get. Or a person reunited with a lost heirloom (in eBay's defense, there was one story of a man who bought a motorcycle, which turned out to be the very same one his father used to own). eBay's chief marketing office, Richelle Parham, however, wanted to talk about cars. And mobile apps. And one of the "incredible" stories she told was about a traveler whose flight was delayed. While this man sat in an airplane on the tarmac at JFK airport, he got bored. So he took out his smartphone and started browsing on the eBay app. Then he bought a Hummer.

Parham's expression in telling this story was one of delight and awe. She loved that this guy spent $113,000 (I could be off, but I believe that's the figure she cited) on a Hummer while hanging out in a grounded airplane. And she prompted everyone in the room to clap and "represent New York" after telling this little story.

Two words come to mind: one percent.

How is that an inspiring story? It is grotesque. The concept of buying a hundred-thousand dollar vehicle on a whim because you're bored is appalling. And not clapping has nothing to do with not representing New York. If anything, not clapping represents New York. It should have told her we were not impressed with that disgusting display of wealth.

Parham also showed pictures of her own car and gushed about it. Now, I'm not an auto enthusiast, so I don't remember exactly what kind of car it was, but it was something special and vintagey. I'm going to call it the Malibu Stacey Car. The way she talked about how much she loved her Malibu Stacey Car was equally sickening because it showed she was out of touch with the people in the room.

A few of the other stories told at the eBay event went along the lines of "this guy collects records, and he was missing a record from his collection, and then he found it on eBay and bought it." And: "With the new eBay features, you can look at pictures of stuff you want to buy, even if you can't afford them, like this Chanel handbag. Isn't it great?"

I told Boyfriend, who had a great response. "The slogan should be, ' eBay: Where people spend money on stuff they kind of want.'"

I get that eBay is about shopping. I get that the company embraces shopping and makes it money when people buy and sell stuff. But for a press event, the executives who spoke had an opportunity to tell truly inspiring stories, and they didn't. Instead, they showed they are deeply out of touch with what's going on in the world today.

Label Makers for Kitchen Organization

In my day job, I test products and write reviews of them. I focus almost exclusively on software, although I occasionally try out fitness gadgets. Instead of working in a traditional office, the space where I work is a technology lab, kitted out with dozens of computers, tablets, mobile phones, cameras, printers, television sets, routers, and literally thousands of other electronic devices scattered around the lab.

I never realized until a few days ago that one of my colleagues has a bunch of label makers. I didn't know how a modern label maker looks nowadays. So I asked to borrow one and try it out. He gave me this Epson LW-300.

What did I make? I created labels for all my spices and dry baking ingredients. My plan is to transfer some of the loose ingredients that are currently stashed in zip-top bags to small canning jars (about $15 for a dozen), which I can buy for about one-tenth the price as those fancy Oxo Good Grips pop containers (set of 10 for $99!). Canning jars are what we use at The Brooklyn Kitchen's cooking class kitchens, where I'm a volunteer teaching assistant.

In my kitchen, I have a huge new pantry, after a total kitchen remodel that is 90 percent finished now, that I haven't even filled yet, so it's kind of a blank slate. I'll post photos from the remodel as soon as Boyfriend and I put the finishing touches on it.

Remembering what's in the pantry (or what will go in the pantry as soon as I move my spices into it) off the top of my head may not have been the most fool-proof way to go about this task, but it's what I could manage on a whim. And now that I know we have label makers in the lab, I can always make the few labels I'm sure I forgot about another day.