How Google Shapes Our Reality
Sometimes, it’s just about having the right answer.
A couple of weeks ago, I was trolling the web, seeking out news and other things to keep me busy, when I decided to see what Google knew about a subject of interest.
I typed in the term “billionaire,” and Google autocompleted with Zuckerberg. In an article on Google Trends, I found Google’s autocomplete grown to become an incredibly helpful way to see how “relevant”
a term is to people’s interests.
I also learned that Julia Roberts said, “I feel like I’m looking in a mirror,” when she met Beyonce and that Chris Brown is not a Trump supporter. I know this because Google threw it in. That’s why it’s called “Google.” It’s one giant online search engine, and it works better than most. Of course, Google isn’t the only big data company tracking information. But it has arguably done more to change people’s minds and shape people’s views than any other big data company. It’s a powerhouse, and it wants to influence you.
Google’s algorithms don’t work like the default Facebook news feed. They don’t choose topics for you or put content at the top of your news feed. Google’s algorithms find what you want before you even know you want it. But Google’s most valuable feature is that it is a repository of billions of people’s collective intelligence. If you search for something, someone may know the answer to what you’re looking for before you even know it.
Google’s approach is reminiscent of a theory proposed by science fiction author Michael Crichton in a 1973 paper. Crichton asked whether human intelligence could ever rival the information systems of the future. He described a future in which the ultimate research effort would be to crack the human knowledge code. The paper, published in the Journal of Science, introduced the idea of “alphabet corporations” and argued that such corporations would hire armies of scientists to scan all forms of
knowledge and get them to decipher the code.
Crichton wrote that “the history of discovery has been one of continually arriving at facts that once seemed incomprehensible. Once they are in place, facts will spread and change at a rate which we can not yet imagine.” In Google’s case, the company will regularly scan all human knowledge forms — including the top stories, images, videos, and news stories in thousands of publications and websites. It’s a massively influential system. Its algorithms find the information you’re looking for, and it indexes that
information. By parsing data from its services, Google can combine the results of people’s searches with its own data to create a trove of online knowledge.
The company also has a weather forecasting service, and it can show you how many hours of sunlight are left on your hike or if you’re likely to be mugged. And of course, it collects as much information about people as possible. Google uses data mining to provide suggestions to people about how they might improve their lives. It also uses that data to sell advertisers information about who they can target with ads. This process is known as “ad personalization” and allows marketers to send users tailored advertisements based on what they’ve searched for and how they’ve acted online.
Google’s algorithms might not be able to read your mind, but they can learn a lot from your internet habits. Just how much Google can learn about you is a subject of intense debate. Critics of the company believe it monitors people’s activities in order to gain a competitive advantage. That could include identifying users at risk of being influenced by negative advertising, according to regulatory filings.
But the company has insisted that it doesn’t want its search engine to make suggestions on who to attack or how to influence. “We have not, do not, and will not scan people’s emails for the purpose of personalized advertising,” David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president of corporate development,
told The New York Times. The US Federal Trade Commission is looking into the tech giants’ behavior.
On March 18, the FTC announced it was opening an antitrust investigation into Google’s behavior in the mobile phone market.
An artificial intelligence system wrote everything you have read up to this point, including literary style and grammatical accuracy, based on specific keywords I plugged in. While plausible, much of the story is a fabrication, otherwise known as “fake news.” For example, Michael Crichton wrote a script for a 1973 movie, Westworld, but there is nothing about “alphabet companies” in that work. There was never such a publication in any “Journal of Science.” The trouble is, generating the fake article was all too easy to do.
And, whether you know it or not, you’ve probably read both true and false Ai-generated content in the past couple of years.
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