How Google is the modern village elder and why we should be careful where we get our advice
I think it’s fair to say Google is no longer on the mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Let’s rebrand it to:
“to organize the world’s information in a manner, that generates the most user retention for Google’s paying customers (the advertisers and content creators), thus maximizing the profits of Google.”
How to understand the Internet?
I like to think about things and coming up with analogies to understand them. As my close friends have noticed, I also enjoy thinking about the Internet. And there’s one analogy I’d like to share with you.
What is the Internet or the Web? If we think it of as a place we visit, rather than the technology of how computers are connected, you can think of the Web as a massive library of books. Each webpage is either a book or a pamphlet, aiming to provide its readers with information, with varying intents.
You could also think of the internet as a giant conference. Each web page is a stall, providing both information in the form of books and audiovisual content. Sometimes even interactive and immersive experiences. And varying intents.
But how do we navigate to the right web pages? How do we find the right book? How do we know which stall to visit?
With a search engine. The modern librarian. The help desk of the Internet.
The help desk of the Internet.
Search engines like Google serve as means to categorize and index all the available web pages for easier access. To solve the issue of sorting web pages.
Let’s look at how it works. When you type in a search query into Google, for example, “How to pluck my unibrow”, you see the results after pressing enter. In the 0,2 seconds it takes Google to generate your results, Google is not actually scouring the entire Internet for relevant content. Rather, Google goes through its own version of the Internet, which they have categorized and indexed for easy access.
In fact, algorithms on Google’s servers are constantly scouring the web and sorting the information into easily accessible order. By searching Google, you are not searching the web, but rather Google’s sorted archive of the web. And while Google is known as a search engine, Google is especially well-versed in sorting. Sorting to organize the information in a manner that enables you to go from question to answer in less than a second.
By browsing the Internet using Google, you are subject to seeing the Internet through Google’s algorithms, not as it is. This leads to Google becoming a gatekeeper of information, the YOU SHALL NOT PASS of Web pages. The only one with reasonable access and means to sort the vast amounts of information available. The online librarian. The help desk of the Web.
Before Google and libraries, who were the ones with access to the most information in our community?
If we go as far back as tribal communities, it would be the village elders.
The Village Elder
Information, knowledge, and subsequent wisdom were sparse and hard to access. Books or at least the printing press hadn’t been invented yet. Wisdom came only from life experiences and shared stories, and myths. And who else had the most experience and legends than the village elder? Someone who had significant experience, having spent a (relatively) long time in the world and in said community.
Other villagers and tribe members would approach the village elder for knowledge and advice. They would ask questions, seeking encouragement and wisdom. Looking for help.
Maybe the village elder was the only one with the ability to (at least in their opinion) predict the weather or decide which herbs should be used to ease the pain of a birth-giving mother.
But in addition to having access to wisdom, however fallible it might be, village elders also had the ability to think critically.
It was not just a manner of being presented with a question, to which the elder provided an answer. They could also determine whether the question was appropriate at all.
Let’s say a young, hormonal boy in the village had attempted to declare their romantic interest towards a girl of the same tribe, only to be politely turned down by their request.
The boy, still hormonal and emotional, seeks advice from the village elder. “How can I win her over?”
The Elder, knowing the rejection already happened, might scold the boy for not respecting the girl’s wishes! “Boy, you gave it your best and did not succeed. The lesson here is not, don’t try, nor is it to press on further. The lesson is to respect the wishes of those close to us. And that there is plenty of fish in the sea.”
The Village Elder would not only answer our questions but also challenge us to ask better questions. Defining our problems in more detail. And deem the inappropriate questions unfit to be answered.
It was never a matter of winning someone over, but how one deals with rejection.
What is the right question?
If we come back to our modern example of Google, we don’t really see the same thing happening. Google seems to be incapable of critically evaluating the validity and usefulness of our questions.
Google, among other search engines, is always willing to provide its sorted archives on almost anything you can think of. Whether it’s information on how to dispose of a human body, accessing drugs or porn, different methods of perpetuating a poor self-image and need for comparison, or in general poor advice, you can get it easily on Google.
Google has to some extent acknowledged this issue, if not in communication, in action. If you search for “how to kill myself”, you might be surprised to find that most search results deal with how to get rid of suicidal thoughts, rather than ways of turning thoughts into actions. This is the result of the deliberate manipulation of search algorithms.
To know that the results can be manipulated for good, almost immediately makes you think if they can or would be manipulated for bad. Who knows who has paid Google to promote their version of bad advice in the interests of promoting their business, political opinions, or religious beliefs?
Google made $135 billion in ad revenue in 2019, catering to commercial interests which relate to the task of sorting information available on the Internet, to answer the questions you pose to Google.
“Which headphones are the best?”
“How can I reduce stress?”
“Who should I vote for?”
“Did Carole Baskin feed her husband to the tigers?”
Going to Google for information is guaranteed to give you results. Google is financially incentivized to provide you with answers. And long ago, we formed the habit of googling almost anything we don’t know. Trusting whatever comes up.
We have immense trust for Google, at least when combined with our media literacy competencies. That’s why it’s easy to think of Google as the new village elder.
Why shouldn’t we go to Google for advice?
But to go to Google for information is subjecting yourself to the possibility of bad, potentially catastrophic advice. It’s subjecting yourself to the commercial interests which dominate the flow of information and attention on the web.
If you google: “How to win her over”, you truly will get very actionable advice on the topic. And also find yourself very close with misogynistic, so-called “red-pill” communities, sharing more than questionable advice on manipulating the feelings of your love interests.
Another example. Let’s say someone wants to understand why someone would be critical toward US President Joe Boden and their ongoing tenure. Just one moment of curiosity to search “What’s wrong with Joe Biden” and clicking on the second result on Youtube would lead you to a Youtube channel “Sky News Australia”, whose home page is currently hosting a video titled: “Education Crisis: The woke indoctrination brainwashing students.” The comments praising its content: “it’s so refreshing to find a news outlet that actually reports on the truth” and “I weep for my kids and future generations. I have to try to undo some of the nonsense they’re being taught in schools.” Congratulations – you are now anti-woke. And what did that mean again? Oh yes, anti-aware of social injustice and inequality. Fantastic.
Inspired by the previous interaction, you now want to Google “Why is Elon Musk good” – on the same crusade of curiosity. The first result will land you on the channel “Future Unity”. An almost laughably obvious conspiracy brainwashing channel, not only aiming to convince you of the existence of aliens, why they have been on Earth, how Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson are paving the way forward for humans, AND which 10 female humanoid robots are best for intimacy.
And let’s not even get started on sponsored results, ads, and the fact that the results tab “Shopping” comes before “images”. I think it’s fair to say Google is no longer on the mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
How about a rebrand? Allow me to suggest the following:
“Google’s mission to organize the world’s information in a manner, that generates the most user retention for Google’s paying customers (the advertisers and content creators), thus maximizing the profits of Google.”
Oh yeah, you thought you were a customer of Google? Nope.
Richard Serra, 1973: “If something is free, you’re the product.”
You are the product Google sells – one search result at a time – to the highest-paying bidder. (Yes, advertisers literally bid at an auction for your attention.)
We might think of Google as the village elder. Newer and mightier, reinforced by technology.
But to think of Google as a source of wisdom is still far from our reality.
We should all be very critical of where we get our advice from. Especially if we tend to get it from platforms that track our behavior and attempt to feed us the information, we are likely to enjoy.
We should be wary not to fall into a reinforcing source of self-affirming, the bias-driven feedback loop of information that narrows our worldview and makes us blind to anyone else’s perspective except our own.
Most think Google is a free service, which it is, in the monetary sense.
Some have realized that they can use Google for free in change for their personal data, a part of their privacy.
But have you realized that other costs might also be involved, just not as apparent?
Maybe there is a chance to think – what does it really cost you? And what could be the benefits of taking a critical perspective toward the information you find? And especially of the information that is being fed your way?
Problems with the platform economy
Along with the original analogy, I’m left thinking about the problematic nature of the platform economy.
On one hand, Google is still the most visited website for all of humanity on a daily level. Google is out here giving out advice, recommendations, and information by connecting you to its archived version of the internet and its countless content creators.
But what about being accountable for that advice? The average Internet user would probably never surf the web in the way we do today, without search engines. They are incredibly powerful tools, enabling us to consume more content.
But at what cost? We’ve made Google the fourth most valuable company in the world. All of the power for almost none of the accountability.
We know what power, greed, and riches do to people. We’ve all seen the direction Google is heading toward. More and more monetization, more and more ads, more and more polarizing content, more and more disinformation, bots, financially incentivized opinions, and “truths”.
Simultaneously; how is Google making us media smart? How do they display accountability for their work on the accessibility of the world’s information? How have they taken responsibility for what their information does for the world?
Sure Google Maps is handy, Gmail is so much better than Outlook, and honestly who even uses Bing?
But all that those neat user experiences do is feed the ever-growing Alphabet soup. More and more attention for advertisers to buy.
Don’t be evil
Google still has the phrase “Don’t be evil” in its code of conduct. Some say there is no evil, but only imbalance, ignorance, and accidents.
I definitely see the imbalance of financial payouts that incentivize the sales of attention, as opposed to the accountability of organizing the information in a wise, instead of profitable manner.
I see the ignorance of this dynamic plaguing the users of Google.
And I see the accidents, where this reality might and has to lead us all.