"The one who controls the search results controls the searcher" may be an apt motto for our era. The sad truth about the Internet is that what started as a liberating multiplicity of informational sources has dwindled to a handful of knowledge-monopolies with Google and Wikipedia leading the pack. While we cling to the founding myth of the World Wide Web – that an information society would mean a world informed by a diversity of information – the reality is a nightmare. The online world has become a trash heap of distorted information collected by soulless bots to serve advertising. And as declining numbers of Americans turn to libraries for wisdom, the Internet has increasingly become the primary, and sometimes only, source of education for whole communities. But relying on the Internet for all of our information needs is a dangerous development when it functions to homogenize thought.
When I encountered a dog-sized rodent digging in my compost bin one night I asked a friend if he'd ever seen such a creature. He told me that it was called a nutria and explained that it originated in South America, was originally imported as a source of cheap fur and now lived wild in the Pacific Northwest. Fascinated, I went online to learn more. A Google search led me to a Wikipedia page where I read, to my great alarm, the precise words and facts my friend had used to describe the animal. It was apparent that he had done the same Google search, clicked on the same Wikipedia page, and had simply recited to me the information he found there. Of course, I didn't blame my friend for telling me what he knew but I was troubled that we had both "discovered" the same facts written by an anonymous poster.
Wikipedia is a particularly unreliable source of knowledge and yet, because of a rumored secret-deal with Google, it ranks highly on many searches. But if you searched Google for knowledge about Theology and read any of the 16,000 Wikipedia pages edited by Essjay, an anonymous contributor who claimed to hold two PhDs, then you may wish to seek your nearest library... and fast. Because it turns out that Essjay was lying about his credentials: he is actually 24, doesn't hold any advanced degrees, and has no specialized knowledge of the subjects upon which he wrote. But the damage has already been done. Unknown millions are now walking the earth repeating the fabrications of an overzealous geek. And while Essjay's contributions may have been unmasked anonymous users continue to edit the 2,000,000 English pages in Wikipedia that are unreliably informing the curious at the same time as they homogenize thought. Even the U.S. military has joined in the Wikipedia fabrication game, one researcher recently revealed over 80,000 edits by users at military servers.
A couple years ago, the U.S. Government's National Center for Education Statistics conducted a nationwide survey and discovered that 87% of American adults are unable to "compare viewpoints in two editorials" because they lack the necessary reading proficiency. It was alarming news for which no one seemed to offer sufficient explanation. But maybe the answer is staring us in the screen: perhaps adults are losing the ability to compare multiple viewpoints because they are exposed to fewer viewpoints each day than before. To the growing number of people who read only the Internet there seems to be a tremendous agreement on truth: it's whatever Google and Wikipedia say. But if the one who controls the search results controls the searcher then we find ourselves approaching the danger of a tyrannical consensus.
We face a terrible future unless, with courage, we are willing to disagree, to ignore the easy truths and to search the hidden places for knowledge. What we need now are adventurers of truth and seekers of wisdom in the wilderness of thought who share their discoveries offline. When the most exciting truths can only be found with the computer off and in discussion with friends then we will have won the war against homogeneity and will be closer to controlling our future.
Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters Magazine and an independent activist. www.micahmwhite.com