Question Google, Question Everything: My Morning at the Bodleian Libraries Staff Conference 2015 – part 1

Last month the Bodleian Libraries held a staff conference. It was a one day event, but due to staffing levels and me being an all round top employee, I offered to attend only in the morning and look after the library I work in in the afternoon so that the rest of the team could either stay all day or go for the afternoon keynotes. For me, this wasn’t an issue as the two talks I was most keen to go to happened in the morning. These were ‘Google: The Answer to Life, the Universe and everything?’ by Karen Blakeman, and ‘Critical Theory in Librarianship’ by Lauren Smith, who I had long followed on twitter, and met earlier that month at the RLC camp in Huddersfield.

Google: The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything? (See here for the notes I took at this session)

This was the first talk I attended. Since getting involved with RLC and learning more about privacy online and the work of the Library Freedom Project, I’ve become quite wary of Google as an entity, so I was interested to hear more about HOW exactly it uses information to produce results and learn about some alternatives. I already had a vague idea about how it generates some results but I didn’t realise quite how unsettling their process is.

The first thing Karen said was simple – ‘Google is NOT a search engine’. Obviously this left a few people scratching their heads, until she qualified the statement with the following –

Google is not a search engine, it is a money making enterprise for its investors.

Ah, there it is – terrifying thing number one.

Google has changed so much since it was first launched in 1997. I was five years old. I am now 23 and Google has become so intertwined with our every day lives that it forms part of our daily discourse. I constantly say ‘oh just google it’  – even if I don’t necessarily mean I’m using Google to look it up. I store files on Google drive, I use Gmail for my personal email, up until recently I used Google Chrome as my browser. As well as tracking my searches, Google has access to a great deal of other personal information about me – probably more than I realise, and it uses this information to tailor my internet searches based around what it thinks I want to know – terrifying thing number two.

Where do I even begin with discussing why I find this incredibly problematic? A large multinational corporation is using data it has stored about me and artificial intelligence to tell me what it thinks I want to or should know, and what’s worse is that this is accepted as being normal. There are young people in this world who have actually never known a life without the internet and genuinely have no idea that this is the case. They read something on the internet and assume therefore it must be true – terrifying thing number three; an entire generation of people with no idea that a significant amount of the information they encounter is flush with corporate bias. How can we trust anything? We can’t – we have to question everything.

Google, the company, have been investing a significant amount of money in AI. Google, the search engine, as a result is changing. The algorithms used to generate searches used to be dealt with by actual human people, but more of these tweaks are being done by artificial intelligence. As such, Google search no longer works in Boolean terms but actually tries to contextualise your entire search term, understand it, then give the results it thinks you want to see. This is admittedly useful in some circumstances. Google, for example, knows where I live, if I search for, say, the opening hours of Tesco, I don’t have to specify which one, if I am in my house, it will tell me about the one just down the road – which is fine if that’s what I’m looking for, but it’s a little presumptuous of google to assume that was the search I was making, and this is where we run into problems. When google decides for us what information we want to see, it means we aren’t engaging critically with information. We aren’t using actual useful research skills. We are having information withheld from us. We are being spoon fed results and told what to think by a machine. Bam – terrifying thing number four – our lives are basically becoming a dystopian sci-fi hellscape.

Perhaps I am catastrophising a little, but if we aren’t constantly questioning the things we read online, the information we find on google and basically everything, then Google has the upper hand. We need to question everything. we need to learn to live alongside Google. Yes, I am quite aware I am personifying Google, but I feel the need to be respectful, because it’s probably aware I’ve written all this, and as long as I’m unsure of it’s agenda, I’ll play nice, but I won’t trust it.

The ‘question everything’ theme this post seems to have taken, I feel, leads very nicely into talking about the second talk I attended, which I shall cover in a second post!



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