See Spot. See Spot Run. See Spot Explain HTTP Cookies.
Google’s new “Good to Know” campaign intentionally reads like a children’s encyclopedia. As one clicks to turn the pages of the story book in a Gmail banner or walks past a series of “Good to Know” billboards on a train platform, each panel offers a single, simplified concept related to the way in which your information is stored and utilized on the web.
I like the idea of friendly animated scribbles attempting to educate the digitally illiterate about cookies and IP addresses so that they can actually understand what Google is doing with their information. In fact, that wouldn’t make a bad children’s show.
Unfortunately, when I see Google’s protracted, kid-friendly versions of complex concepts, they do not inspire peace of mind. In fact, these minimalist panels remind me of something that has been making me quite uneasy — my ever more “personalized” Google search results.
Lately, it seems that the more I search, the more I feel trapped in a self-referential bubble. In a recent attempt to do comparative research on different “Stop and Frisk” policies across the nation, I had trouble getting past local search results and sites that I had already visited. The more I search a given topic, the less varied the most salient results. Obviously, I am inclined to delve further into search results and try new tactics.
Yet, I begin to wonder, “How much of the internet does the average individual really get to see?”
On my more trusting, less enterprising days, I am not quite ready to give up the convenience of Google’s thought-finishing technology or its ability to reference my search history just so that I can sift through a wider cross-section of the web. The internet-old tension between convenience and more democratic values like diversity, free speech, and privacy clearly persists.
The idea of taking my business elsewhere is also difficult to justify when Google is constantly improving in ways that its competitors are not (apparently, it has something to do with its nascent “knowledge graph“). Perhaps I just wish it were possible to change search preferences in a more fluid manner to match the type of search one needs at that particular moment (and the number of articles one has read that day about Google’s inability or unwillingness to protect personal information).
Google’s use of search histories, IP addresses, and past purchases may help inform consumer searches for plumbers or cars, like the ones featured in the “Good to Know” campaign. But if you’re doing research, or if you’re part of the web-inspired generation of autodidacts who hope to become knowledgeable about a wide range of topics through web browsing, it’s not so helpful.
As Sue Halpern commented in a thought-provoking article on the subject, a custom internet also does little to remedy the ideologically isolating nature of politics in this country. Commenting on the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser, Halpern wrote, “…the internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.”
My evidence that searches are becoming more self-referential is purely anecdotal, but many technologically savvy writers have also been fretting over the increasingly personalized nature of Google web browsing, especially since it rolled out new Google Plus features to “search plus your world” last month. TPM Idealab even pronounced Google search (as we know it) “dead.” Features that start out allowing you to “opt in” by default often become standard. I can see the relationship-based search priorities that have been thrust upon Google Plus users becoming widespread and unnoticed a couple of years hence.
As Google continues to fine-tune its PageRank search algorithm to the chagrin of search engine optimization (SEO) employees everywhere, I just hope it prioritizes democratic values as much as it does the ability to be on the cutting edge in providing a “personalized” and convenient consumer experience.
Given that Google is going to pioneer the info-streaming goggles that may put the nail in the coffin of face-to-face communication — and endanger the lives of pedestrians everywhere — I’m not so sure I trust this company as the de facto steward of that private-public balance. I also can’t think of a company I trust more.