Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I've Been Searchin' So Long to Find an Answer; Now I Know My Life Has Meaning

Nicholas Carr:

In its new design, Google’s search engine doesn’t push us outward; it turns us inward. It gives us information that fits the behavior and needs and biases we have displayed in the past, as meticulously interpreted by Google’s algorithms. Because it reinforces the existing state of the self rather than challenging it, it subverts the act of searching. We find out little about anything, least of all ourselves, through self-absorption.

To be turned inward, to listen to speech that is only a copy, or reflection, of our own speech, is to keep the universe alone. To free ourselves from that prison — the prison we now call personalization — we need to voyage outward to discover “counter-love,” to hear “original response.” As Frost understood, a true search is as dangerous as it is essential. It’s about breaking the shackles of the self, not tightening them.

There was a time, back when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were young and naive and idealistic, that Google spoke to us with the voice of original response. Now, what Google seeks to give us is copy speech, our own voice returned to us. It’s a great tragedy.

A tragedy, no less! No, it's actually like Marx said: the first time we heard this complaint, it was a tragedy. Now, it's just a farce.

Google, like any corporation, is in the business of profiting off of consumers, not elevating people's souls and instructing them in the art of cosmopolitan citizenship. And leaving aside the ridiculous fear that they could ever develop an algorithm so precisely-tuned as to imprison us each in our own solipsism forever, ask yourself this: if they weren't trying to personalize your search results based on your browsing history, what else would they offer? Wouldn't the safe thing to do, as a company providing a service, be to aim for the lowest common denominator, a utilitarian standard that stands the best chance of appealing in the broadest way to the widest number of people? How does knowing the thoughts and interests of most people on any given subject encourage creativity, serendipity and exploration? And yet, somehow, those things occur regardless. I dare say as long as people are capable of experiencing the fundamental human condition of boredom, they will always be dissatisfied with what's right in front of them and go looking for more.

Ironically enough, for someone so (rightly) concerned about the dangers of self-absorption, Carr seems especially prone to identifying his particular subjective experience as the essence of a cultural malaise.