Everyone loves Google right? What’s not to like. A free online search engine that gives you instant access to any information you want. A digital library of Alexandria that you can keep with you in your pocket and access on the go.
Google entertains us, educates us and helps us navigate our way through life. The search engine is so integral to our modern world that we’ve made it into a verb. We even use it to end debates or arguments.
The Big Question
Who hasn’t heard ‘According to Google…’ and listened, wide-eyed, as the Almighty speaks and someone’s theory is either tossed out or given the golden seal of approval.
Have you ever heard someone say ‘well Google is wrong’? Did you laugh that person out of the room with a ‘Google..wrong? what an absolute nutter’ type response?
We have an unshakeable bond and trust with Google that goes far beyond its role as a useful information tool. Think about how many times you use Google in your day, how many times it’s helped you work something out or made your life simpler.
Google can help us with practically anything. Want to know how to get to your interview? Need to buy a sewing kit to upcycle your tea towel? Want a recipe to make bread? Need to ask something in Spanish? Just google it.
Our first port of call is to ‘google it’ because it always has the answer. It’s proven itself as an all-seeing, all-knowing information portal. Even when someone tells us reliable information, we still google it, just in case they’re wrong. We trust Google above anything else.
A great example is following directions given by mere mortals. I’ll give you an example out of my own life – I went to an event last week and went to the wrong location. The very nice man who answered the door explained in detail how to get to the right venue. I listened to exactly none of it because I knew I could use Google. I thanked him, left and then got out my smartphone. I even got slightly annoyed that he wasted 3 minutes of my life explaining where to go when I was late and have Google Maps. I’m pretty sure his directions were exactly on point, but I had my blinkers on and wanted to listen to the only voice that counted.
I’m not alone in thinking this way. The fact that we tend to go straight to Google before we go to friends, family or even books is a colossal change to how we interact with and trust information. We are slowly but surely using one source of information to form our entire perception and knowledge of the world around us.
And it doesn’t stop there. We don’t just ask Google practical questions, we also ask it the most intimate, existential questions that pop into our heads, the questions we are too scared to ask the closest people in our lives.
What’s so bad about googling something you aren’t sure about?
In theory, absolutely nothing. But there are 2 important points to keep in mind –
- We aren’t cross-checking information from other sources
- We are swapping multiple sources of information for just one
The Gospel Truth
The fact is we aren’t second-guessing Google as much as we should. If Google started pointing us to badly researched articles, far too many of us would believe the information in the article because Google recommended it. Maybe some of us would search for a couple more articles, but those articles still come from Google. The number of people that actually look through real books and magazines or even use a tandem search engine is very low.
Our growing habit of not cross-checking facts via different mediums gives us tunnel vision information, especially when looking up history, culture, political beliefs and the daily news. So when Google modifies its algorithms and Google ranking criteria (which it does often to keep one step ahead of the ranking tricksters) it actually has a detrimental effect on our perception of truth and facts.
For example, if the algorithm starts favouring one website link over another, you are more likely to read it and take it on board as part of your opinion on a subject. Google algorithms quite literally change us and the world around us. Like an existential game of digital chess.
Blast from the past
And then there’s fake news and social media, how readily it’s shared and how much it can influence elections, political movements, and our own views of the world. Google sits in the middle of it all, helping us glide through the fake news clouds, bouncing from website to website.
Propaganda or fake news also isn’t a new thing. The powers that be and the institutions they belong to have been doing it for a very long time. What is different though is the way we gain access to and how much we are exposed to propaganda, and Google is intrinsically part of that shift.
In the past, we would tell our priest (or equivalent) our deepest darkest secrets and we would change our view of the world based on what they told us. They were our existential guides, who would help us navigate the world according to scriptures. Many people still do this, but lot’s of us have decided that we want to make our own way in life.
What we don’t realise is that Google has taken up that empty space. Algorithm led content acts as digital scripture and the pragmatic priests are the website creators sitting on Google’s ranking lists.
Our need to be guided by some sort of institution never went away. We are still highly influenceable and need more knowledgeable people to form our opinions – whether we are religious or not doesn’t change that fact. We still listen to our teachers, government, and experts because we want our views to be confirmed, we need people to help us fill knowledge gaps and tell us what information we should believe. Google is a bridge between all 3 types of authorities, throwing in a boundless library as an additional perk.
So the ultimate question is – if Google content is digital scripture and website creators the priests who create the scriptures, what would Google then be?
……….I can already hear the torches being lit.