Illustration: Shipra Gupta
Google. Have you heard of this website? Apparently it’s pretty popular. And apparently it has changed our lives so quickly we rarely take a step back and realize we are living in the greatest expansion in the dissemination of knowledge since Gutenberg’s day.
Although Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world, it has nothing on Google. He slapped a few simple machines and metal letters together and soon enough a class of printers followed suit. In the Google age of digital democracy, where access to information empowers individuals, things are actually much more centralized. A website can live and die on its PageRank, which is to say that a guy at Google named Larry Page created a formula that determines what shows up when someone searches for a piece of information.
We don’t see that central force permeating into our lives as, for much of the world, Google has become as ubiquitous as the atmosphere. When everything proceeds as normal, they are as vital as they are invisible.
But when something about how they work changes in a fundamental way, you would expect people to sit up and take notice. For the latter, it’s been clear for some time that people don’t—from a psychological perspective, climate change is an issue that seems designed to be ignored. It now seems the same applies to the world of search as well.
With little fanfare, Google made its personalized search system the default this week. Whereas searchers had the option of turning on this feature before, now users’ search histories are automatically factored into the engine’s mysterious algorithm. This means that results users actually click on after a particular search will be ranked higher in subsequent searches with similar terms.
Google says this switch was made to improve customer service; when searching for “sox,” users interpreted to be sports fans will find more information about baseball teams than footwear. But when one moves beyond haberdashery and into weightier issues—say, climate change—the potential for endemic confirmation bias becomes troubling.
To be fair, Google has said that users will always have the option of opting out of personalized searches. And according to Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, Google reps told him that personalization would only affect a portion of a user’s results, meaning that even the most biased searchers would not be able to totally wall themselves off from sources that don’t jive with their ideological bent.
A couple of debuts stole the spotlight from the personalized search story, including the introduction of Google’s real-time search feature, especially as it applies to the rapidly updating world of Twitter and Facebook. There’s now also Google Goggles, which is not the feature that tries to prevent you from drunkenly emailing things you might later regret, but a visual search application for its smartphones.
But Google’s “Living Stories” experiment was perhaps the search giant’s most highly-touted announcement. Undertaken in partnership with the New York Times and Washington Post, Living Stories aggregates news content regarding eight topics into one-stop-information shops, allowing readers to organize coverage by a variety of criteria. For example, Google’s Living Story on “The Politics of Climate Change” can sort items from the New York Times into Copenhagen or ClimateGate piles, or chronologically interweave articles and editorials on the two subtopics.
While this experiment might seem like a bulwark against the bias inherent in technologies such as personalized search, it may end up adding to the problem. For now, each of the living stories is confined to a single source. Comparing the New York Times and Washington Post’s ClimateGate coverage would add some value. Hell, even comparing the Post’s ClimateGate coverage to itself would have been useful, considering they published a stunningly ignorant op-ed by Sarah Palin on Wednesday, and one that refuted everything she said on Thursday, courtesy of AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner.
Like it or not, the confirmation bias battleground is taking place on Google’s servers, and its search algorithms will determine winners and losers when it comes to what bit of information first catches a person’s attention. Peddlers of disinformation know this well, hence the suggestion that people educate themselves at “Google University,” whether the subject is link between vaccines and autism, or the non-anthropogenic causes of climate change.
This all comes back to Cass Sunstein’s recent work on group polarization, which I last discussed when “death panels” were the focus of Sarah Palin’s latest disinformation campaign. If you need a good example of it in action, ClimateGate has you covered. When CRU researchers used a statistical trick to emphasize data in a graph, the denialist group saw it as evidence that climate change is a worldwide conspiratorial hoax. When Fox and Friends double-dipped on poll numbers to make it seem like more people agree with that position than they do, it’s just another day at the office.
Originally published December 11, 2009