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. or micah (at)