We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Stick to what you don’t know

There can surely be no more conclusive evidence of market success than the trademark name of a particular company becoming the commonly used verb to describe the activity for which said company provides its products. Have you ‘googled’ anyone today? Have you ever been ‘googled’ yourself?

As someone who ‘googles’ on pretty much a daily basis, I can find no material fault with this richly-deserved and glowing tribute in the UK Times:

Google is the modern Oracle, the all-knowing mechanical sage we consult to find, if not the answers to life’s questions, then at least a comfortable, reasonably priced hotel in Torquay. But is Google God?

I cannot recall such a mystical (and, for some, blasphemous) suggestion ever crossing my mind but, like the author, I am only too ready to wax lyrical about the benefits of Google’s simple and effective information gathering machine.

Google may have all the answers but, unlike God, lots of Google’s answers tend to be wrong, loopy postings from lonely people typing late at night in their underwear. Google moves in mysterious ways all right, but some of those ways are downright weird.

To whom could he possibly be referring?

That was before Google invented a new algorithm that took the search engine an enormous step closer to divinity. Last week, the company filed worldwide patents on a system enabling it to rank news search results not just by date and relevance, but by veracity and quality.

Google will not only be omniscient, but supposedly trustworthy; not just a reference guide, but a machine that urges the user to believe in it, to have faith, to trust in Google.

In my opinion (which is seldom humble), this is not a good idea and I say this not because I am any authority on mathematics (far from it) but because I simply do not understand how any set of algorithms are going to judge what is and what is not ‘quality’ information when even the human beings who creat those algorithms can rarely (if ever) be relied upon to do just that. By what criteria is ‘quality’ going to be measured? Whose ‘veritas’ is going to be sought after and delivered?

If a user is searching for information on, say, the Iraq war, then whose ‘truth’ will be offered up in response? John Pilger or Mark Steyn? Noam Chomsky or Victor Davis Hanson? Could it transpire that these magical algorithms merely reflect the pre-existing views of their authors?

The beauty and, yes, the popularity of Google lies in the fact that it not only provides information quickly and efficiently but also that it does so without the added burden of value judgements. It affords the user the opportunity and the courtesy of sifting the chaff from the grain and working their own way to their own conclusions. In other words, it is the perfect market mechanism.

But pointing the user to what it believes to be the truth is the very ‘service’ which could, I exaggerate not, be the death of Google. At the very least, the proprietors of that fine institution could find themselves in a world of pain where they are plagued by complaints, lawsuits, demands for rectification, boycotts, denunciations, governmental restrictions and being written off as Barking Moonbat Central or a lackey of the Neocon-Halliburton-Wingnut-McChimp- Bush- Hitlerstein Conspiracy.

Let them unleash all their veritable algorithms if they must but I predict that it will not be long before the proprietors of Google are desperately searching for a way to hand the whole thing back to the comparatively safe hands of the lonely underwear brigade and yearning for a return to the quiet, halcyon days of comfortable hotels in Torquay.

8 comments to Stick to what you don’t know

  • John Brissenden

    Good to see that you kids have found your true calling, as I’ve always thought of you as the standard-bearers of the lonely underwear classes. Rest assured, your tragically smug offerings will still be infesting RSS readers the world over…

  • Katie

    Well, Google has always ranked “most trusted” first, and what is meant by that is calculated by how many people link to you. I think their technology for ranking “quality” first will be equally based upon the popularity/ubiquity of a given news source. Don’t forget that this is for Google NEWS.

    On a related note, as a linguist in computer mediated communication, Google’s legal recently castigated Wired for using google as a verb without referring to them specifically, thereby conflating the non-brand specific term “web search” with “google.” Google seems to have forgotten that, once upon a time, Radio, Television, and Telephone were likewise uppercase “brands” that came to represent the entire apparatus.

    If you want to talk about the evil side of Google, look into the autolinks controversy they’re under fire for now. Also, their anonymity API, which is not private at all, in that GOOGLE has your information.

  • Consider this explanation of how it’s supposed to work:

    Credibility is hard to quantify, but not impossible. The Google formula will assess and monitor news sources according to a number of variables: length of story, number of bylines, how long the source has been in business, volume of internet traffic to the site, variety of countries accessing the site, size of staff and so on. The Google database will take all these parameters, and apply a formula that distils them down to a single value. In theory, this will produce a pyramid of information with the most believable at the apex: The Times and the BBC at the top, the Daily Sport and Jeffrey Archer at the bottom, and the Downing Street dossier on Iraq somewhere below that.

    Joking aside, pretty much anything from a source like the government would be rated up there with the Times and BBC by a system like that. And that’s why the proposed formula would be worthless–the government and mainstream media are among the _least_ credible sources of information.

    This system would result in, for example, an eyewitness report of an event in a weblog by a person knowledgeable in the relevant field being given substantially less credibility than an AP report by a reporter with _no_ knowledge of the relevant field (and no desire to learn), who may well have censored the report for political reasons.

    And in answer to the question of “is Google God,” clearly not–Google has never threatened to torture or kill people who use competitor’s products. 🙂

  • Andrew Duffin

    An interesting example of the corruption of the meta-context.

    The bad guys can’t do much about the content of the web (yet – give them a while) but they’ve found a way to make sure the masses only see those bits of that are approved by the elite.

    It was bound to happen.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Uh..a missing “it” in there somewhere. Remind me again what that “preview” button is for 😉

  • So the back lash against Bloggers is starting.

    If I swear never to Blog in underwear, can I be counted as better quality?

  • Google is just great for those believers who want to ask the same questions as everyone else, and get the same answers. Google rankings already depend on the clicks of previous websurfers, and this dependency will become more sophisticated. Google will therefore support, with ever-greater efficiency and effectiveness, an intellectual activity characterized by A.A. Milne (author of Winnie-The-Pooh) as “Thinking with the Majority”.

    Googling at Google
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