Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Google…stop thinking for me!

Published on 10 January 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

I’m new to Internet governance. In fact, before the 5th IGF in Vilnius, the Internet was just something short of miraculous that worked – most of the time – and delivered the results I needed – most of the time. I had no idea it was so complex and that so much was involved in its governance. The more I know, the more I realise that I don’t know. And many months later, I’m still at sea.

Internet activist Eli Pariser warns me that Google and Facebook and even the New York Times (imagine!) are personalising my searches so that I get the results they think I am looking for. Note: the results THEY think I want. This scares me – because I already know what I know and getting more information about what I know will only convince me that I’m right – or even more right than I thought I was. What I need to get is an alternate view – something that challenges what I think, gives me pause for thought, and makes me examine my beliefs and perspectives.

What if I am doing research or checking for information that I’ve never wanted or needed before? What if I am standing on the verge of a whole new world just waiting to take that first step? What if?

So, true to form, (and as I admittedly don’t know enough to know whom to believe) I checked to see what Google has to say. And now I’m even more afraid. Google is morphing its Search engine with my world! This search Search plus Your World is capable of understanding people and relationships. (Hey, I’ve done a huge amount of introspective work and even I can’t lay claim to that!) It promises to find information just for me, based on what I’ve already shared and information my friends have shared. It’s going to let me find people I’m close to or may be interested in following, and pages and people related to my interests. It’s as if my world is going to stop spinning right now – and my choices and preferences as they are today will be frozen in Google time.

Am I worrying needlessly? In his recent blog post Are enabling technologies ‘neutral  Aldo Matteucci has this to say: ‘My hunch is that search engines implicitly yet effectively favor the “mainstream” over diversity and tend to confirm prejudice over challenging it. They strengthen and support authority as against valid arguments. To the extent that they are driven by ex-ante and self-fulfilling choice criteria like “most popular” they have limited informational validity.’

And as if that wasn’t enough to leave me quaking in my boots, Gerard Celenete (Trends Journal) is predicting: ‘The coming year will be the beginning of the end of Internet Freedom: A battle between the governments and the people. Governments will propose legislation for a new “authentication technology,” requiring Internet users to present the equivalent of a driver’s license and/or bill of health to navigate cyberspace. For the general population it will represent yet another curtailing of freedom and level of governmental control.’

So, not only am I, as an unedified Internet user, now facing a future whereby my searches are biased in favour of my likes, everything I do will be tracked and noted in the Captain’s log. Oh. Wait. Isn’t that already happening?

Google tells me that ‘While there may be 7 billion people and 197 million square miles on Earth, a septillion stars and a trillion webpages, we spend our short, precious lives living in a particular town, with particular friends and family, orbiting a single star and relying on a tiny slice of the world’s information.’

Google – I agree. Absolutely. How many of us already think that the small town in which we live is the centre of the Universe without realizing that we are indeed only enjoying a tiny sliver of a greater world?
But then you say that your dream is to ‘have technology enable everyone to experience the richness of all their information and people around them’. And yet what you seem to be doing is limiting my world to what I already know, to those I already know.

I want more from you! I want what was promised when the Internet first took hold. I want the world. Not your view of the world. The world. In its entirety. A view from which I can pick and choose the information I need and not simply what you think I want.

Google… stop thinking for me!

15 replies
  1. Nail Yener
    Nail Yener says:

    Hi Mary,

    Hi Mary,

    I was just thinking to write a “Google, stop thinking for me” article on my blog after installing Google Chrome and noticing that it was installed in my local language although I selected English version on the download page. I wanted to see if there were others who think the same. Now I am sure there are.

    With the latest changes Google is introducing, I feel more interrupted in my browsing and although the changes Google is implementing might seem brilliant to them, I really don’t like many of them.

    There are a couple of things that I hate a lot such as “to be told what to do” and “to be thought for me”. Especially on the internet, I can never accept this.

    Every company has a lifespan and personally, I don’t feel Google is in a healthy direction.

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Hi Nail – I know what you
      Hi Nail – I know what you mean. Because I live in Hungary, Google insists that my search page is in Hungarian. You say: although the changes Google is implementing might seem brilliant to them, I really don’t like many of them. Unfortuately, I think that the vast majority of users simply don’t notice or don’t care and Google will continue catering for the masses. ‘Tis far from healthy – I agree.

  2. Ginger Paque
    Ginger Paque says:

    About that ‘unfiltered
    About that ‘unfiltered results icon’… I found an article in the Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/faq-googles-social-search-and-its-antitrust-privacy-implications/2012/01/13/gIQAUtwCwP_story.htmlat that says:
    “How do I turn it off? For specific searches, you can turn off the personalization by hitting the globe icon on the new toggle switch that appears on every search page. If you want to disable the feature permanently, head to the “search settings” menu under the cog icon that appears in the upper right-hand corner of your window when signed into your Google Account. In the “search results” menu, scroll down to “Personal results” and click “do not use personal results.””

    AND, I found this https://support.google.com/websearch/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2410479
    where it says: “You can see what your results look like without personal content by clicking the globe button on the top right-hand side of your search results page. This setting is session-specific, meaning that if you close your browser, personal results may appear next time you search. You can switch back to seeing personal results by clicking the personal results button. … ”

    So, the icon is there, and so are the instructions. Let’s start comparing search results, and hmm maybe I need to do a little research before I complain next time?

  3. Mary
    Mary says:

    Thanks David – great article.
    Thanks David – great article. Couldn’t have put it better myself:

    ‘For more than a decade, Google search wasn’t “social” in any way. When I searched for a new car or a European hotel or the best way to plunge a toilet, Google would give me results that reflected the collected view of all Web users. That worked really well!

    Not once during those years did I get to a Google results page and lament that I couldn’t see my friends’ ideas about the car I should buy or the hotel I ought to book. While my friends are thoughtful and knowledgeable people, their views on the tens of thousands of large and small inquiries that I bring to Google every year are almost always irrelevant. When I’ve got a clogged toilet, I want advice from an expert—a plumber, preferably, but I’ll even take the stranger who wrote this eHow post. What I don’t want to know is which link my boss consulted when his toilet was clogged.

  4. Mary
    Mary says:

    @Michelle – ‘as an engineer I
    @Michelle – ‘as an engineer I see the possibilities’. I can’t help but be reminded of the old joke: the optimist sees the glass as half-full, the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, and the engineer simply sees too much glass. Progress is indeed a remarkable thing and the ways in which ‘machines’ and ‘machined thinking’ can improve our lot and save us time are fascinating. But a huge part of me is hesitant. Take a simple example: since getting a mobile phone, I no longer have to remember phone numbers, add up on paper or in my head, or worry about remembering to do anything. My phone does it all for me. Now that I know that Google and its ilk are ‘thinking for me’, I wonder what’s left for me to do. As you said: fasincating but no easy answers.

  5. Michele
    Michele says:

    Interesting post, Mary. Like
    Interesting post, Mary. Like you, I am quite concerned about applications that can provide me with a wealth of information somehow choosing to limit my perspective, but I am also quite intrigued by it. I do think that one of the objectives of trying to implement personalised searches, is to improve the predictive methods and methodologies that Google, for example, has been using for years. I see these a stepping stones to better understanding how we as humans think, and consequently Artificial Intelligence, and other innovations.

    As a human, and hopefully free thinking individual, I am not thrilled that some external force might be deciding for me where my interests lie, but at the same time, as an engineer I see the possibilities… There are no easy answers…

  6. Mary
    Mary says:

    @ Ginger. It comes back to my
    @ Ginger. It comes back to my point about how we make people aware of this Ginger. Now that I know my searches are personalised, I can make an informed decision about whether to drill deeper or accept what’s dished up. As choosing a particular algorithims – again, confessing my ignorance here (how embarrassing) – that, too, requires a level of education that I have not had. Perhaps ultimately it all comes back to education – making sure that Internet users are not simply blindly using but are aware of what’s going on . My vote would be for the ‘unfiltered results’ icon… nice one!

  7. Mary
    Mary says:

    @Jovan – Can we question
    @Jovan – Can we question every answer from Google? Who has the time? We take the easy way out and believe that is first dished up to us. Interestingly (or perhaps not!) I had this in an email from a friend in the USA today:

    ‘Right before xmas congress talked about approval of a Keystone Pipeline, so
    I figured one night to find out more. It took over 10 pages of search
    results on google before I found any article that wasn’t the typical talking
    points expounded by the congressmen (job creation, energy security, etc) …
    it took several more searches to drill down deeper into the actual drivers
    for the pipeline, and further searches to determine investors & other
    obscure entities likely to benefit from the pipeline […] Bottom line, it took me nearly 4
    hours to actually figure out most of the ballyhoo…on the other hand, at
    least by virtue of the internet I was able to ultimately find the info.’

    So if we have the time, Google has the answers.

  8. Mary
    Mary says:

    @ Biljana – Yes, I’ve started
    @ Biljana – Yes, I’ve started using different search engines to see how the results differ. I’ve also asked friends to search for particular key words (the same that I use) and then send me a screenshot of what results they find. It certainly has made me think a little harder are Google and am determined not to take the Internet at face value any more.

  9. Mary
    Mary says:

    @ Uvais. I don’t know enough
    @ Uvais. I don’t know enough to comment on whether this deception is deliberate. I doubt it though. My fear is that people like me, who are Internet novices and not regulars in the IG world don’t realise that our searches are being personalised. We are naively trusting Google et al. to do what we ask them to do -i.e. answer our search queries. This idea of personalisation hit me smack in the face. I had no idea. How many more are there out there like me? Yes, when I choose an RSS feed, I know I am choosing the content. But in a simple search I expect to do my own thinking. Agree that the question may well be at the individual level – but who has the responsibility to inform the individual of what’s going on. Perhaps we should have to pass an IG test before getting access to the Internet 🙂

  10. Ginger Paque
    Ginger Paque says:

    Whether we do our own
    Whether we do our own personalization, filtering and organizing is up to us, and we know exactly how we do it. We choose it. Perhaps we must now regard all search engine results as ‘targeted advertising’ and take them as such? OR: Might search engines start getting more open about their algorithms so we can select one that works for us? AND: Will one of the search engines finally get smart and offer us an ‘unfiltered results’ icon? OTHERWISE: Might someone come up with the ‘original search’ engine, which gives unmanipulated results, as a subscription service, one we pay for — heresy, I know — in a transparent manner with the coin of the realm, rather than with our privacy, in exchange for — remember this ancient concept? — open access to information?

  11. Jovan Kurbalija
    Jovan Kurbalija says:

    Last year, Aldo wrote a blog
    Last year, Aldo wrote a blog which could be considered as his inaugural statement for Diplo’s “resident contrarian” (https://wp.me/p81We-F). He concluded by quoting the Indian conglomerate TATA advertises: “From today, question every answer”. Can we question every answer from Google?

  12. Biljana
    Biljana says:

    Mary thank you for this
    Mary thank you for this excellent post! I agree with you and I am thinking how we become so Google oriented. There are so many webpages and we can expect to have also many search engines, but why is Google so dominant? “Monopolist” will always use that position to earn more money, get more users,… So now we need some search engine that will offer different perspective.

  13. uvaisi
    uvaisi says:

    The question perhaps is
    The question perhaps is whether some corporations are deliberately deceiving people by filtering access to alternative views. We don’t like corporations, like Google, personalizing our views without our knowledge. But there is another dimension: Are we, individually, inclined to search for alternative views?

    An individual inclined to broaden their perspective could (arguably?) find other ways of searching and filtering for ideas that are diverse, such as choosing RSS feeds, or selecting diverse social media ‘friends’ or ‘following’.

    What’s interesting is that even with the help of these services, people seem to have a tendency do a fair bit of personalizing and filtering over time, for many ‘human’ reasons: Time, interests, or sometimes, simply because we have ‘heard that story over and over again’.

    So, maybe the real question is at the individual level? Is Google merely automatically speeding up a thinking pattern that individuals would do anyway?


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