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How Google is narrowing our minds


'Google' by Chris JohnstonThe internet — once hoped to infinitely expand our mental horizons and our exposure to challenging ideas — now seems more likely to confine us to our prejudices.

When you search in your web browser today, for any given term, your search engine (Google, for the overwhelming majority of Australians) retrieves pages that it thinks you will be most inclined to take an interest in, based on your personal search and browsing history.

Day by day, with each moment of online interaction, search engines are etching a more detailed portrait of our interests, and filtering out the world beyond those interests.

Personalised search means that when two people type an identical term into google, the results displayed could be quite different. It means, on the plus side, that Google's results are ranked by specific and contextual relevance rather than just by what other people have clicked on.

Meaning, for example, that typing in 'I like' no longer autocompletes to 'I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur'.

On the other hand, it could mean that your web history influences your web present.

Personalised searches are not a deliberate attempt to censor information, although search engines have occasionally been found to engage in such practices (see, for example, Siri's suggestions for abortion clinics). Your search is personalised with the best intentions of filtering out the masses of irrelevant information and presenting you with the pages most relevant to you.

And indeed, the results that your search engine provides you with are dependent mostly on your tastes: the pages you have visited, the search terms you use, and links you have clicked.

More recently, Google also incorporates information from your social network (only Google+ at this stage) including links, photos and comments. Google cookies diligently squirrel this information away every time you use the web in an effort to bring you more relevant results next time you search.

Not only your searches are filtered in this way. On Facebook, posts from friends whose viewpoints you share or whose updates you dwell on are privileged to the exclusion of posts that do not interest you.

For me, this means I receive proportionally more content from a younger friend whose posts are so misspelled and grammatically confused that I spend minutes with my cursor hovering above the letters, attempting to make sense of her thoughts. I no longer see posts from conservative or devout friends, or those who constantly post about their children, because Facebook knows I don't care.

In fact, almost my entire news feed is populated with the latest polls, articles in trade journals, and features from Eureka Street.

The hard-working algorithms of the net are not trying to limit us. They are mirroring our behaviour and preferences, and encouraging us in our specific interests. The problem is that in having our tastes reflected back at us, we become more and more narrowly defined and cut off from the diversity of interests available to us, and the great potential of the web for sharing perspectives is lost.

I've contributed to the state of my news feed through my own actions: following political groups and journalists and clicking their links. But it's bad enough that I let my work get in the way of taking an interest in my friends and family — I don't need Facebook to do it for me.

Moreover, the state of pubic discourse — online or offline — is already fractured, with opinion and commentary substituting for journalism in most of our news media. The increasing personalisation of web content may sound the final death knell for news reported objectively to meet the needs of the broad population, as news can be segmented by target audience to maximise click rates.

In this environment, commentary reigns: one person's Annabel Crabb is another's Andrew Bolt. Google's role in this is minimal: it merely wipes Andrew Bolt from my news feed, deeming his opinion irrelevant to my interests. While for that I am forever thankful, the wider implications are disturbing.

When I digest information written in alignment with my own views and you with yours, we both lose the opportunity to have our views broadened, challenged or changed. Worse, exposed predominantly or exclusively to my own views and the views of those like me, my position is reinforced and perhaps tends to the extreme, and I become unsympathetic to alternative perspectives.

That is bad enough for a rather uninfluential private citizen such as myself. Consider now that Annabel Crabb recently wrote a blog noting that her research is likewise constrained by Google's interpretation of her interests.

At present, the effect of Google's personalised filters is not dramatic, and the option of disabling personalised search is available in both Google and Facebook.

But as the algorithms for tailoring personalised content become more sophisticated, as mobile devices become more pervasive and as content becomes more plentiful and specific, there is potential for the isolating effect of our own preferences to become greater.

A web advertising expert recently told me of efforts underway to develop retinally-projected digital media. Advertisements, targeted to your location and purchase history, will be projected directly to you, invisible to others, from the personal device through which you view your world.

How much of our concern for a shared society will we lose when we no longer share even a sensory experience of the world around us?

Edwina ByrneEdwina Byrne works in media and communications 

Topic tags: Edwina Byrne, Annabel Crabb, Google, Facebook



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Existing comments

Don’t worry; our home grown thought police is doing a very good job in making everyone compliant to political correctness. Google has a long way to go and has a lot to learn from our slogan merchants and hypocrites. We call anybody seeking fairer migration policies a “racist, bigot etc” and we make sure that the business of people smuggling makes more lawyers super wealthy. We call anybody who may oppose a carbon tax a “climate sceptic” etc. Freedom of speech does exist only if you agree with the official version of the truth.

Beat Odermatt | 12 March 2012  

It's also possible in the options/toolbar - somewhere - to opt out of allowing google to monitor your browsing habits and hence match preferences/advertising to you searches. (I'm sure it would be quite an easy task to do if I had a spare 5 hours)

AURELIUS | 13 March 2012  

This narrowing of available data has been practiced for years by most established religions when they discourage cooperation with "others" and lay claims of being the "one true religion", promote social dealings, education, and especially marriage only within the members of like religious views.

These tactics are aimed at preserving the material expression of whatever particular limited religious beliefs are embraced by the various establishments and detract from the universal vision needed if all mankind is to cooperate for the ultimate good of each and all of God's Children.

Robert Liddy | 14 March 2012  

Man (nor also I assume woman) does not live by Google alone. If Edwina limits her information search to what comes to her via Google and Facebook, then that is her problem, not Google's.

John R. Sabine | 14 March 2012  

What fascinates me about your piece today, Edwina, is that it documents the hunanisation of the computer. The degree of intellectual development that resides in the myriad available pathways for information storage and control must certainly approach or even exceed the human brain's capacity but,of course, lacks autonomy and independence outside its defined electronic pathways. There is something very human in the computer's capacity to act in the editorial fashion of so many human editors of opinion pieces in that it seems that it edits information in accord with personal preferred opinions and attitudes. Despite the great advances of technology, very little is new in this world!!!!

john frawley | 14 March 2012  

I was once taught that learning is about concentrating, is indeed the same as what happens when we are praying: total concentration and involvement in the process itself. It is a basic and very big question, just how much learning any of us are doing online. Learning is never just about the material but about our ability to concentrate. This means having a relationship with the teacher (in this case, the www) that is more than just surfing and thinking we’ve got all the material under control. Google &c. are wonderful means to an end, but they don’t get you to learn and they certainly don’t provide you with everything. Edwina is saying that Google shapes a personal profile that reinforces our own interests and limits us to our kind of knowledge. To change this habit means creating conscious practices that break our common search strategies, even our daily ways of thinking. I find myself before a computer screen doing this increasingly, pondering before the next search if I am reaching the right places and how I can trick the algorithm and get sent to new and relevant places. There is an embarrassment of riches out there, but are we finding more glass than pearls? It certainly is a problem, because at the same time Google &c. are for many people the main or even the only way of getting at the information. This becomes pressing not when you are affluent but when you are poor. It is curious in a world using Google everyday, how little training is available to improve our skills. I think it goes back to the computer geek’s attitude of the 1990s: let them work it out for themselves! Such an attitude is not, of course, education.

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 March 2012  

the use of electronic Media highlights the need for discernment in its use. Otherwise we are hoodwinked by forms of brainwashing by those who want to make us conform to their way of thinking. This is expressed in opinion polls that are designed to influence our thinking rather than find out what we really think

john ozanne | 14 March 2012  

Thanks again Edwina for a very focused and considered piece. Two things get me about human beings and as one, I can speak not in judgement but as one of the accused. Our greatest cultural poverty and personal shortcoming can be the inability to imagine there is something much larger and more important happening that we appear to lack any appreciation of in much of what we say and do. And the second is the way we trap ourselves in our own logical processes and so can't accommodate ideas/facts/people that don't fit that logic. There's a lot of lunacy around in the sense in which GK Chesterton described the malady - trapped in one world, the lunatic lacks the ability to imagine another universe. What's the answer(s)? Make sure you take every opportunity you can to grasp as many mental/emotional/cultural circuit breakers as you can....and learn how Philip Harvey has managed to trick the Google algorithm.

Michael Kelly | 14 March 2012  

Edwina when you start to exclude Annabel and only read Andrew or vice/versa you start to kill your brain and close your mind. When you are so sure you are right that you exclude the contrary view you are putting a stop to to your own journey to knowledge and understanding.

Mary Hoban | 16 March 2012  

Ways to trick the Google algorithm. 1. Click 10 instead of 2 when a display comes up. The other day I was cataloguing a rare book with subtitle information about “a priest in Paris”. You would think such a search would display information about priests in Paris, but the first screen is full of links to videos of Paris concerts by the excruciating headbanger band Judas Priest. This tells me that those links are the most common searches for these two words (‘priest’, ‘Paris’) on the internet, which implies something worrying about the pop culture saturation of Google and its unsecret object of desire. 2. Google Scholar: scholar.google.com/ 3. Start spending money on the software packages that Google sells to beat the algorithm. As New Yorkers say, Go figure! 4. Stop surfing with predictable words and start diving with unusual words inside the search area. In other words, get creative with the language that you are employing. 5. Write words like ‘bibliography’ and ‘webography’ after the search term. This leads you to sites and documents with oodles more appropriate links. ‘Links’ is a useful word, but not all of us play golf every day. Any others?

PHILIP HARVEY | 16 March 2012  

Despite the - partly - very differentiated criticism below I´d just like to thank you for your enlightening article, which I will share with my older students here in Germany. It may not be be last word on the subject - and I am sure you never intended it to be - but your article is a very good starting point indeed.

Frank Joussen | 17 March 2012  

Congratulations Edwina - I enjoyed the article and found it very thought provoking. I am so pleased that Google has deemed Andrew Bolt's opinions as as irrelevant to your interests. You have prompted some great responses.

Gerard Byrne | 23 March 2012  

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