The Intelligent Edge by Helen Brown

When Google starts acting like HAL

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Stuff gets filtered to suit our particular likes and dislikes all the time.  It’s why I don’t get any catalogs for fly-fishing lures or (alas) equestrian apparel.  Once I randomly got put on a list for private-plane owners, which was fun for a time (and then slightly depressing).  I have long appreciated this filtering for the recycling-center trips it saves me.

However, last week Sacha Dichter wrote an interesting blog post about information filtering that kind of disturbed me.  In the article, Dichter discussed a related phenomenon that concerned him:  news outlets and information sources becoming so polarized that we have to remind ourselves to specifically seek out opinions that differ from ours in order to be well-rounded people.  We need to purposefully consume sources that strive for balance or seek out those that challenge our thinking or opinions. It’s really good advice.

It wasn’t what Dichter wrote that disturbed me, though; it was this jaw-dropping TED Talk by Eli Pariser that he embedded, talking about online filtering:


If you can, and especially if you are a professional researcher, please take nine short, engaging minutes to watch this video.

How do we avoid missing the important stuff?

It’s not like tailoring information is new.  But for those of us who provide information to others for a living, the reality that our web search results are abridged based on what we’ve clicked on previously should make us extra diligent.  What are we missing?  And how can we avoid myopic results when what we hope to provide is the best-researched information possible?

HAL may have thought of itself as incapable of error but we know how well that turned out
for Dave and the rest of the crew.

A few suggestions

I say this a lot because it bears repeating: if you want the most complete results when you search, you *have* to use more than one search engine.  Search engines index many different things and many things differently.

Also, for all kinds of reasons it’s a good idea to empty your cache/browsing history and delete cookies frequently.  If you can’t remember to do it every day, set a reminder to do it every Friday at quitting time.  Besides unloading your computer hard drive of a lot of junque that you just don’t need clogging up space on your hard drive, there will be that many fewer sites tracking what you are doing online…and remembering those preferences to edit what you are seeing.

For the casual searcher, the rewards of filtering are probably as many as its penalties.  For professional searchers, though, having the full array of options to choose from is key.

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4 Comments

Holly Yalove

May 25, 2011

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Interesting post – I’ve pondered this one before and agree a lot of what is tracked is pretty unnerving. I love the HAL reference!

    Helen Brown

    May 26, 2011

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    Hi Holly, thanks for your comment!

Charles

September 2, 2011

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I’m afraid I can’t do that, Helen.

(Our polarized world may be rending itself apart, what?)

New Google = New Coke

January 15, 2012

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[...] And yes, it does.  You don’t even know what you don’t know, but you will if you read this and watch Eli Pariser’s jaw-dropping TED [...]

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