Guest Post: How To Speak Google

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The following guest post was written by Matt Levinson, the Assistant Head of School for the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School in California. Matt is also the author of a terrific book, From Fear to Facebook, and someone who has considered the role of technology in education very deeply and thoughtfully. I’m pleased to share here his post about “How to Speak Google”:

This past summer, I attended a conference at which technologist and futurist Alan November argued that we have now reached the point where technology is trying to understand us, instead of us trying to understand technology.

I did not really grasp this abstract concept until recently when I visited Atlanta, Georgia.  While I was at the hotel, I needed to access some information on the Marin Country Day School web site.  As I usually do when I need to go to the web site, I typed “MCDS” into Google.

When I am on the MCDS campus, the first search page link is the school web site. In Atlanta, when I typed in “MCDS”, I was given a full page of links to different McDonald’s web sites.  MCDS did not even land on the first page of my search. Instead, I needed to type “Marin Country Day School” into the search engine to gain access to the school web site.

From that point on, while I was in Georgia, Google understood that I wanted to access MCDS the school and not McDonald’s.  However, below the school web site, McDonald’s still showed up in great quantity.

What is going on here?

Google operates with location-based algorithms.  Because I was in Georgia, my search location was Vinings, Georgia, and Google gave me what it thought I wanted initially: McDonald’s.

In his TED Talk, “Beware of Online ‘Filter Bubbles,’” Eli Pariser touches on how web companies “strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, but there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”

When you sit down to conduct a search, Google looks at more than 200 different signals—from what kind of computer you are on, to what type of browser you use, to your location—to give you the information it thinks you want. But this is not necessarily the information you need.

Google co-founder Larry Page once described the perfect search engine as “something that understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”

Biologist Robert Sapolsky writes about the “staggeringly large amounts of information” that are coming at us through technology, and he comments that “technology may be outstripping our ability to really make use of it”—that is, information and data.

What is needed, Sapolsky argues, is a way to educate people “who can intuit in six dimensions.”  He knows and understands that his grandchildren will be able to “navigate that stuff as effortlessly as we trogolodytes can currently change radio stations while driving while talking to a passenger.”

Google is a giant roomful of doors.  Depending on where we live, what computer we use, what browser we use (Firefox is for oldies and Chrome is for the younger set, according to my eighth-grade advisees), we will enter into different and unequal spaces.

One of the key 21st century competencies that we need to teach is how to navigate the “digital doors” so that kids understand the intent and impact of search.

The next time you travel or go someplace with your kids, take screen shots of your Google searches and see what you come up with, and then when you get home do the same search and compare notes.  Or, better yet, Skype with a relative across the country and ask them to do the same search with you at the same time and compare notes.

This is a great way to engage your kids in a conversation around Google and to help them see and understand that Google is not the giant land of wonder, but instead a personalized, tailored search engine that can limit one’s view of information, if search is not conducted carefully.  It is important for kids to understand how technology is trying to understand us, so that they can more critically access and digest information, in ways that they need, and not just in ways that they want.

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