Blown To Bits

Chapter 4: Needles in the Haystack‚ Google and Other Brokers in the Bits Bazaar

Found After Seventy Years … The Library and the Bazaar … The Fall of Hierarchy … It Matters How It Works … Who Pays, and for What? … Search Is Power … You Searched for WHAT? Tracking Searches … Regulating or Replacing the Brokers

In [the] shadowy bits bazaar, with all its whispers and its couriers running to and fro, search engines are brokers. Their job is not to supply the undisputed truth, nor even to judge the accuracy of material that others provide. Search engines connect willing producers of information to willing consumers.   Search engines succeed or fail depending on whether we are happy with the connections they make, and nothing more. … Providing what most people want creates a tyranny of the majority and a bias against minority interests. When we searched for “spears,” for example, we got back three pages of results about Britney Spears and her sister, with only three exceptions: a link to Spears Manufacturing, which produces PVC piping; one to comedian Aries Spears; and one to Prof. William M. Spears of the University of Wyoming.

Whether the results “seem right,” or the search algorithm‚ parameters need adjusting, is a matter only humans can judge. For a time, Amazon customers searching for books about abortion would get back results including the question, “Did you mean adoption?” When a pro-choice group complained, Amazon responded that the suggestion was automatically generated, a consequence of the similarity of the words. The search engine had noticed, over time, that many people who searched for “abortion” also searched for “adoption.” But Amazon agreed to make the ad hoc change to its search algorithm to treat the term “abortion” as a special case. In so doing, the company unintentionally confirmed that its algorithms sometimes incorporate elements of human bias.

Google had a yes-or-no decision: to cooperate with the [Chinese] government‚ web site censorship or to lose the Chinese market. … And so, when Google agreed in early 2006 to censor its Chinese search results, some were awakened from their dreams of a global information utopia. “While removing search results is inconsistent with Google‚ mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission,” a Google statement read. That excuse seemed weak-kneed to some. A disappointed libertarian commentator countered, “The evil of the world is made possible by the sanction that you give it.