3/30/2012

Navel gazing. Compliments of Google


Gulliver's Travels was one of the finest pieces of literary work. Not only was it  fantastically creative, it told us profound things about the world. Many parts of that book still apply to situations we have today, although perhaps in surprising ways. Take the Laputians for example. These were brilliant people that were so wrapped up in their own thoughts that they required servants to remind them to speak or to listen.  I find this fascinating since this means that the servant now decides what his master will be exposed to. The servant choses when something is "interesting" or "worth while".

Our online lives resemble those of the Laputians. We too have servants who decide when information is important or relavent to us. They come in the vise of personal ads and personalized search. Don't get me wrong- personalization can be great. After all, if you type in "china" wouldn't it be great if the search engine knew whether you were talking about dishes or a country? Consider the all the advertisement we see as well. I'd rather see ads for stuff I like rather than junk I really don't care about. The problem comes when we are filtered from seeing discenting ideas. Our minds become small and we learn less.

The internet is a sea of information. Much of it agrees with our preconceived notions but just as much is challenging and therefor illuminating. Confirmation bias (our knack for cherry picking facts to fit our beliefs) is hard enough to deal with as it is. If these digital servants are filtering out uncomfortable bits of information, my bias grows worse.

To get around the filters and broaden your search results, you may want to try one or more of the following suggestions.

1) Delete your account.

You could go ahead and start a fresh digital life. Get rid of Facebook, Google and Pinterest. Start brand new accounts or go without those services all together. Extreme, but it’ll work. Mostly. Google still may be filtering based on the machine you use.
2) Use the library.
a) Get onto the public machines. Like I said, Google may filter results based on the particular computer you use. Since so many more people use these machines, chances are higher your results will be far more “natural”.
b) Don’t sign in to Google. They know it’s you and what you look at. They even read your emails. Well... not exactly. The algorithm looks for common phrases and keywords. Still, Google will use what it knows about you to serve up "relevant" content.
3) Toss your cookies.
Make sure you regularly go in and delete cookies. Keep in mind that you’ll have to sign back in to your websites if the cookies are gone. So be careful.
4) Use a different browser
Most computers have at least two browsers on them. Find the one you normally don’t use and wipe it clean. Delete the history and the cookies, clear the cache, remove all the Autofill information, and remove all the website data. Go whole hog. Then use that browser to do your searching.
5) Go incognito
Most browsers allow you to open an “incognito window”. This means that the browser won’t remember anything about the website you just visited. No history is stored, no cookies remain. The websites may remember you, but as far as your computer is concerned, it never happened.  Google also (supposedly) ignores these windows.
6) Set your location to “United States”
Unfortunately, Google is always going to give you local results. To get around this (kind of), you can set your location to a country. I use “United States” to get the broadest results possible.

So, remember the Laputians? They were all caught up in their own thoughts; seeing and hearing the pieces of the world their servants found relevant. Jonathan Swift makes them out to be fools in the end. Lets do what we can to make sure that Google doesn’t make fools of us.