Don’t put your faith blindly in Google

Image representing Google Search as depicted i...

For example, if you search for “God” on Google Web Search, as I did on July 15, 2009, from my home in Virginia, you could receive a set of listings that reflect the peculiar biases of PageRank. The Wikipedia page for “God” ranks highest.

…The second result I generated is for something called “God.com,” sponsored by the Evangelical Media Group. It promises to recommend books that can answer questions such as “Why are there so many religions and which one is right?” In rural Virginia, this might be one of the more “relevant” results, because it clearly serves evangelical Protestant Christianity, which is the most significant religious community here. The page for God.com is free of clutter, and it must have many highly popular referrals. It’s thus well suited to Google’s standards for inclusion and high scoring with PageRank. But one would hope that in Cairo or Venice a different result would end up second behind Wikipedia’s entry for “God.”

The first page of my search results shows a limited range of sites, considering the wide array of possible references to “God” in the world. It includes a video of John Lennon singing his song “God” (a search for “Mother” also links to a video of the Lennon song of that name, however—above a link to Mother brand polishes and waxes). There are links to a number of atheistic sites, as well as a link to the Twitter feed of someone who calls himself “God.” There are no links to Islamic, Hindu, or Jewish sites, or even to Catholic sources. Here in Virginia, we are led to believe that the answers about God come from Wikipedia, evangelical Christianity, atheist sites, and John Lennon.

So the chief lesson here is not that Google is the cause of the problem: the lesson is that we are flawed. One of our flaws—which we recognize— is that we often lack the knowledge that we need to live our lives both happily and responsibly. We believe that Google offers a powerful way to overcome that flaw. But our faith in Google leaves us vulnerable to other flaws: the tendency to believe what we want to believe, and belief itself, the credulity that makes us functioning social beings and that sometimes can betray us. When we choose to rely blindly on a pervasive, powerful gatekeeper that we do not understand, we are destined to make monumental mistakes.

Excerpted from “The Googlization of everything (and why we should worry)” , by Siva Vaidhyanathan

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