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Shaping our perceptions – the Google lens

Posted by Alex Warren on 2nd December 2013

With over 130 thousand webpages being created every day, the internet’s potential for information overload has long been a cause for concern amongst technological critics and stuffy cardigan-wearing academics.

We have found ourselves faced with a greater quantity of information than anyone could ever hope to absorb. In fact, research suggests that it would take over seven years simply to read the current contents of Wikipedia.

Thankfully, rather than reading every page in existence just to find what we’re looking for, there exists a rather nifty little tool called Google. (You may have heard of it)

Rather than scrolling through trillions of webpages, Google kindly sorts the contents of the internet by order of relevance. While this may prove incredibly helpful, it does beg a number of difficult questions.

First off, what on earth is relevance? Surely the mere concept of what is and isn’t relevant is a subjective decision? Even more importantly, is it really wise to be handing over the global responsibility of deciding what is “relevant” to a third party organisation? Particularly one with the size (and reputation) of Google.

As is well understood, most internet users will never really see beyond the first page of Google’s carefully selected search results. As such, when Google decides what sits on page one and what should be banished to the realms of page three billion, it is ultimately shaping the users perceptions of what is and isn’t important to know.

It is also worth considering that beyond page three billion there exists an entirely unchartered corner of the internet, yet to be discovered by Google’s spiders. This undiscovered “Deep Web” is currently estimated to contain almost 500 hundred unlisted sites for every one indexed page. It is up to Google to decide what we do and do not get to see.

Regardless of whether such decisions represent a calculated malice or (more likely) a simple algorithmic decision, they still represent a level of cultural agenda setting previously unseen – even in comparison to the national news media. It is only under the strain of infobesity that we have been forced to delegate our information access to Google. Perhaps the contents of page three million are of vital importance to us? Then again, it’s not as though we’ll ever have the time to find out.

In the past, many internet commentators have criticised Google for using its agenda setting privileges for promotional gain (listing Google branded products above their competitors). Regardless of whether this is true, there is also a potentially deeper issue at play. By deciding the “relevance” of results, Google provides a cultural lens through which the entire internet is viewed. In ‘Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge’, French media critic Jean-Noel Jeanneney highlights the growing prominence of English speaking and culturally western values within Google’s search results (particularly within sub-search categories such as Google Scholar and Google Books). This criticism raises an interesting question as to how Google can claim to organise relevance without acknowledging that the very concept of relevance is subject to such vast cultural variation.

By allowing search engines to categorise the value of our informational resources, we have helped to create a filter through which we now view the internet. Who needs Google Glass? It turns out we’ve already been seeing the world through a Google sponsored lens.

Photo credit: deSteve

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.