Sunday, October 28, 2012

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.

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