Searching Google, And Finding Ourselves

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A thought-provoking reflection by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows:

“When we talk about ‘searching’ these days, we’re almost always talking about using Google to find something online.
That’s a big change for a word that long carried existential connotations—a word that had been bound up in our sense of what it meant to be human.

We didn’t just search for car keys or missing socks. We searched for truth, for meaning, for transcendence. Searching was an act of exploration that took us out into the world, beyond ourselves, in order to know the world, and ourselves, more fully.

In its original form, the Google search engine did just that. It transported us out into a messy and confusing world—the world of the web—with the intent of helping us make sense of it.

But that’s less true now. Google’s big goal is no longer to read the web. It’s to read us.

Last month the company hired Ray Kurzweil, an artificial intelligence expert, as its director of research. In the future, he says, Google will know so much about you that it will be able to deliver information before you even ask for it. You won’t need to search at all.

That future is already taking shape. You can see it in the personalized search results Google provides based on your earlier searches.

And you can see it in a new Android app call Google Now. It tracks your location and uses prediction algorithms to deliver useful information to your smartphone preemptively.

These days, Google’s search engine doesn’t push us outward so much as turn us inward. It gives us information that fits the pattern of behavior and thinking we’ve displayed in the past. It reinforces our biases rather than challenging them, and subverts the act of searching in its most meaningful sense.

There was a time when search engines opened new vistas for us. Now, they hold up a mirror to us, giving us back a reflection of ourselves. Search has become a tool for self-absorption.” (Read more here.)

I see this happening in its most literal form—these days, when I search for a term like “science of learning,” what I get back from Google is often a bunch of my own articles! Complete with a thumbnail picture of myself gazing back at me. Talk about holding up a mirror. I want to find out what other people have to say on the subject!

Have you found that your search results are increasingly narrow in their scope? Have you discovered a way to expand them?

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3 Responses to “Searching Google, And Finding Ourselves”

  1. Andrew says:

    It’s an interesting perspective, though I’m far from a Luddite. As a practical tip, when I want to Google for something without seeing my personal history color the results, I just open a private browser window so there’s no information about me.

  2. Allie says:

    What an interesting way of looking at it. While I do think that as time goes on, Google will try to deliver more personalized results, I don’t think it is subverting the act of searching by doing so. If my world is narrow before Google takes over the universe and all I want to know about is, say, shoes, then my world and the results I see will still be that narrow after. If I choose to expand my world by ‘searching’ for something beyond what I know now then I will still be searching after Google achieves world domination. Searching has always required action. That is a choice on the part of the individual. The scope of searching will always be as narrow or wide as we make it ourselves regardless of what Google does or doesn’t do.

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