Blackspot

Google's Flaw

A crime against knowledge.

It was recently announced that the Texas attorney general is investigating Google for allegedly altering search results to the detriment of its competitors. Underlying the investigation is the assumption that any human interference in Google's machine generated search results violates the principle of "search neutrality". While it is commendable that attention is finally turning to Google's overwhelming power to distort knowledge, basing the attack on the principle of "search neutrality" is irredeemably flawed. A far deeper, essential critique must be made against Google's commercialization of knowledge.

The idea that search engines can, or should, be neutral can be traced back to a movement of leftist librarians in the 1970s. Led by Sanford Berman, one of the first to bring social rebellion into the library, radical librarians argued that the system used to organize books was inherently biased and racist because it reflected a Western perspective. At that time, and to this day in nearly all public and academic libraries, books were organized in subject hierarchies. Berman believed that this system was deeply problematic. He wrote that, "western chauvinism permeates the [library's organizational] scheme". And called for a "disinterested scheme for the arrangement of books and knowledge". In so doing, he paved the way for search engines.

Berman, and his generation of radical librarians, placed their faith in technology. They assumed that the automation of indexing, what we now call search engines, would provide a "disinterested scheme". And we see today in the actions of the Texas attorney general, the same flawed assumption that search engines can be "neutral" or "disinterested".

But since the beginning, indexes have been biased. The first index, the ancestor of today's search engines, was developed in 1230 AD when a team of 500 monks led by a French Dominican Cardinal, Hugh of St. Cler, completed the world’s first index of the Bible. It was a major intellectual breakthrough. For the first time scholars, without a lifetime of study, could quickly know every reference in the bible to particular words, such as mercy or charity. The index had a profound impact on the way the bible was studied. It was called a concordance because, as one contemporary historian explains, it allowed theology students to "see the concord or agreement of key words in their numerous locations in scripture”. The index was not only a tool for studying the bible, it changed the way the bible was understood. In other words, the index was biased in a way that was considered useful.

However, by the eighteenth century, intellectuals such as Jonathan Swift foresaw that indexes would become a major threat to wisdom. They argued that indexes promoted superficiality and discord. They called this uniquely modern form of stupidity "index learning". And blamed modern ignorance on the practice of jumping in and out of a book based on its index rather than deep reading. Even earlier, in 1661, Joseph Glanvil wrote, "Methinks 'tis a pitiful piece of knowledge that can be learned from an index, and a poor ambition to be rich in the inventory of another’s treasure."

Regardless of what Swift and Glanvil thought of index learning, by the early 20th century there were already dreams of building a "universal index" of all human knowledge. One of the first to propose this idea was Henry Wheately. In 1902 he wrote an apt description of Google: "The object of the general index is just this, that anything, however disconnected, can be placed there, and much that would otherwise be lost will there find a resting-place. Always growing and never pretending to be complete, the index will be useful to all, and its consulters will be sure to find something worth their trouble, if not all they may require". Wheately was ahead of his time. Without computers, his plan was impossible. However, the dream persisted and by the late 1960s, computers had been programmed to build keyword indexes. It would take another forty years for Google to make Wheately's vision of a universal index seem practical.

When we search Google, we do not search the internet directly. Instead, we search Google's index of the internet. When we type in apple, for example, it is as if we are opening an incalculably large book and flipping to a section that lists all the times apple has been mentioned on the internet. Google is an index, a concordance of human knowledge.

There are fundamental, structural problems with the intellectual foundations of search engines. That search indexes fragment knowledge is clear. That they encourage superficial learning is also true. Indeed, as Nicholas Carr has written, Google is making us stupid. These problems will continue to exist even if the index is totally automated.

The essential problem with Google is that it no longer considers itself primarily a search engine. Instead, Google believes it is an advertising company whose search results are mere fodder for commercial messages. This is the crime Google has committed. It is not in violating the principle of neutrality, an ideal that never existed in the history of knowledge organization. Google's crime is against human culture.

Google has stolen our common knowledge and commercialized the library. The long-term cultural consequences of this deplorable criminal act are unclear. But Google's loathsome introduction of advertising into search results is travesty that must be investigated.

Now is the time to begin a substantial inquiry into Google's practices, not because they violate "search neutrality" but because they violate the human need for commercial-free learning.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org

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74 comments on the article “Google's Flaw”

Displaying 11 - 20 of 74

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EMT

You charge that Google has committed a crime against human culture for putting ads on their index. Their design may be unimpressive and their relevance to what I just searched usually limited, but I do not think they constitute a 'deplorable criminal act'.

Is it a crime against human culture that Oxford Univeristy Press charges money for its dictionaries? That Encycolpedia Britannica charges for its DVD's? That the the Globe and Mail charges for its newspapers?

Google has proven itself to be quite an innovator, an organizational example that we ought to encourage. But they have only been able to become what they are today because they built an incredible ad funded platform that millions and millions of people access each day. Not because they are forced to, but because they choose to. Remember every time you visit Google you do so voluntarily. There are other indexes and you are free to build your own. Or to abstain from using them altogether. I am as well but I, like most others, prefer to concentrate on what I like and do best, and Google and other indexes have helped me to do that countless thousands of times.

As to the cultural argument you are making concerning the process of learning,my response would simply be that one need not choose between index learning and deep learning. It is possible to engage in both in meaningful and productive ways. Certainly this case cannot be made against Google alone and furthermore I will assume that in making the argument against index learning you are equally critical of Wikipedia for the same reasons, despite its radically different organizational character.

Operating on the assumption that we will not and would not be wise to abolish all indexing, the question becomes: what is the best way to build and maintain them? There may be a better way but I think that Google is doing a fine job of it.

We are all in this together, we all need to earn livelihoods, support one another in doing so, and always consider our common physical and intellectual heritage. It is right to research how Google operates and it is right to criticize their practices where one sees fit. Parts of the argument I didn't follow and parts I disagreed with but thanks for putting it out here.

EMT

You charge that Google has committed a crime against human culture for putting ads on their index. Their design may be unimpressive and their relevance to what I just searched usually limited, but I do not think they constitute a 'deplorable criminal act'.

Is it a crime against human culture that Oxford Univeristy Press charges money for its dictionaries? That Encycolpedia Britannica charges for its DVD's? That the the Globe and Mail charges for its newspapers?

Google has proven itself to be quite an innovator, an organizational example that we ought to encourage. But they have only been able to become what they are today because they built an incredible ad funded platform that millions and millions of people access each day. Not because they are forced to, but because they choose to. Remember every time you visit Google you do so voluntarily. There are other indexes and you are free to build your own. Or to abstain from using them altogether. I am as well but I, like most others, prefer to concentrate on what I like and do best, and Google and other indexes have helped me to do that countless thousands of times.

As to the cultural argument you are making concerning the process of learning,my response would simply be that one need not choose between index learning and deep learning. It is possible to engage in both in meaningful and productive ways. Certainly this case cannot be made against Google alone and furthermore I will assume that in making the argument against index learning you are equally critical of Wikipedia for the same reasons, despite its radically different organizational character.

Operating on the assumption that we will not and would not be wise to abolish all indexing, the question becomes: what is the best way to build and maintain them? There may be a better way but I think that Google is doing a fine job of it.

We are all in this together, we all need to earn livelihoods, support one another in doing so, and always consider our common physical and intellectual heritage. It is right to research how Google operates and it is right to criticize their practices where one sees fit. Parts of the argument I didn't follow and parts I disagreed with but thanks for putting it out here.

Anonymous

To say that Google is dumbing us down is ridiculous. I have learned countless things through Google in many areas of my life. I am almost certain I discovered this website through Google as I'm sure many have. Not too sure you would have much of a following if it wasn't for Google.

As for the advertisements, I'll tell you what I tell everyone else-Download Firefox and the add-on Adblock. You will never see another ad on Google again.

I may have some issues with the way Google is run but you have not touched on any of them.

Anonymous

To say that Google is dumbing us down is ridiculous. I have learned countless things through Google in many areas of my life. I am almost certain I discovered this website through Google as I'm sure many have. Not too sure you would have much of a following if it wasn't for Google.

As for the advertisements, I'll tell you what I tell everyone else-Download Firefox and the add-on Adblock. You will never see another ad on Google again.

I may have some issues with the way Google is run but you have not touched on any of them.

THINKFORYOURSEL...

Micah, I love your articles. They are always thought provoking and engaging.
Who are these people jumping to Goog's defense? Are they e-automatons birthed by Goog to undermine journalist's opinions? You must look in to this.
Any entity that wields the information that Goog does should be relentlessly examined, especially by anyone with a point of view to defend.
And as far as advertising, you are spot-on about the paratext. Can we even imagine an information medium without advertising? Oh wait, it's called muthafucking Adbusters. Stay cool.

THINKFORYOURSEL...

Micah, I love your articles. They are always thought provoking and engaging.
Who are these people jumping to Goog's defense? Are they e-automatons birthed by Goog to undermine journalist's opinions? You must look in to this.
Any entity that wields the information that Goog does should be relentlessly examined, especially by anyone with a point of view to defend.
And as far as advertising, you are spot-on about the paratext. Can we even imagine an information medium without advertising? Oh wait, it's called muthafucking Adbusters. Stay cool.

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