Saturday, June 18, 2011

Google Is . . .

Here's a little quiz for you. This is a multiple choice question. It goes like this. Complete this sentence:

Google is:

a. Cool
b. Ubiquitous
c. Scary
d. Indispensable
e. All of the above.

You want to say e., don't you? Sorry. The correct answer is c. Scary. Okay. It was a trick question, just by way of introducing you to some information you may not know. I consider myself a pretty well informed person, and I did not know this.

The information I'm about to share can be found here, in a pretty stout article in The New York Review of Books--thanks to my friend Cecil for turning me on to it--about three new books out about computing. More specifically, the effects and future of the revolution computers have wrought in the world. The names of the books aren't important. You can read about them in the piece. But what I want to tell you about is some stuff I discovered that, I have to confess, I find bothersome indeed.

I pretty much knew that somewhere at some mega database in the sky that every place I've ever been to on the Internet is recorded and who knows how it's being sliced and diced. This thought is disturbing enough, but there's a lot worse. We all think that Google is pretty much working on a much improved and sophisticated version of the original algorithm. Which, as you recall, figured out what to throw up there first when one searched by figuring out what sites people most visited for that information. So-called "page ranking". There's probably a better way to explain it, but I trust you know what I mean.

So if you and I search for, say, the word "art," we're going to get the same thing back, right? Well, of course, you say. In fact, you could not be more wrong. Without our knowing it Google has been amassing a whole slew of data about us as individuals. And on every search we do, it applies this data to construct a search result just for us. There are 57 separate variables considered. Read this bit from the article:
The search process, in other words, has become “personalized,” which is to say that instead of being universal, it is idiosyncratic and oddly peremptory. “Most of us assume that when we google a term, we all see the same results—the ones that the company’s famous Page Rank algorithm suggests are the most authoritative based on other page’s links,” Pariser observes. With personalized search, “now you get the result that Google’s algorithm suggests is best for you in particular—and someone else may see something entirely different. In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.” It’s as if we looked up the same topic in an encyclopedia and each found different entries—but of course we would not assume they were different since we’d be consulting what we thought to be a standard reference.
If this ain't scary, I don't know what is. More on this tomorrow.
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