Internet guru attacks Google’s ‘toxic wasteland’

Google is king of the internet. It's so powerful, says a new theory, that not only can it answer almost any question, it can make you boring and stupid in the process.

It is one of the biggest companies on the planet and one that millions have come to depend on. But it is under attack. And this weekend a new missile has been launched which accuses Google of cheapening and poisoning the world's intellectual well.

The essay, by the famous online guru Evgeny Morozov, argues that Google's utopian vision is turning the internet into a 'toxic information wasteland'. And Morozov's pessimistic thesis has now received some surprising scientific backing, in the form of a new study which shows that our use of search engines like Google is actually damaging our ability to remember things.

So what is this company that has so dramatically changed the way we think? Google is a multinational corporation worth $170 billion. Starting life as a university research project, it includes YouTube, Gmail, Google Chrome, and new social networking site Google +. Each year 1.5 billion people use a Google site.

The core of its success is its search engine. Early search engines were disorganised, slow and ineffective. Google changed everything.

The company's founders invented the revolutionary PageRank system, which gives every website a score. The score is calculated by the number of other pages that link to it, and how highly those pages are ranked. A higher score means it comes higher up the page when it is searched. This in turn results in more views, links and advertising revenue.

So 'to he who has, will more be given' – i.e. the more popular a website is, the more popular it becomes.

One consequence is that ranking pages by popularity is a kind of survival of the fittest, where 'fit' means 'crowd-pleasing'. Information is valued only by its popularity, not its intrinsic worth, so commercial sites target the mainstream, and our world view narrows.

The new attack on Google also says that because results are generated by an algorithm, the company claims whatever comes up in search results is not their fault, it is just a product of what else is on the internet. This means the might of Google is wielded with minimum responsibility.

Powerful but stupid?

Google is powerful. It reduces the complexity of the web into simple lists, and its 83% market share of web searching reflects how useful it is. The company's fans say it is doing the world a great service, for free, and we should be grateful.

But its critics say that by reducing search results to a numbers game, much is lost. When a Google team couldn't decide between two blues, they tested all 41 shades between the two blues to see which one performed better. Turning queries into maths questions arguably means there is less discretion and artistry. The whole process is clever, but less intelligent.

You Decide

  1. How would your life change if Google disappeared tomorrow?
  2. What are the good and bad aspects of one company controlling almost all of a market, as Google does with the search engine market?

Activities

  1. Try using Google, Yahoo!, WolframAlpha and Blekko to find out a piece of information. Repeat a few times, looking for different kinds of information in different subject areas. What are each search engine's strengths and weaknesses?
  2. Create a Powerpoint comparing Google to its competitors in revenue, market share, geographical spread, and anything else you can think of. Be inventive.

Some People Say...

“The internet is making us stupid.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is Google any good then?
Of course it's a matter of opinion, and different sites have different strengths, but most people agree Google does its job very well.
What about in the future?
Well there are a couple of sites with good ideas. WolframAlpha collects data, and instead of giving webpages gives answers. Good for science questions, less so for the arts. Blekko is an interesting new concept. It is editable, like Wikipedia, so once you have done a search, you can recommend the best results for the next person.
Great, I'll switch now!
You can, but the nature of these projects means that, unlike Google, they need a lot of effort to make them work well, and they will take time to improve.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.