People generally don’t think of the paper on which the daily news is printed, or the printing press that puts it there, as anything but neutral. They identify the publishers as the ideologues and the medium as a conduit.
You'd think the same, broadly speaking, where the web is concerned: Julian Assange didn't invent the wiki platform where the confidential wires were leaked: he was the editor and Wikileaks was the medium. But in Consent of the Networked, former CNN China Bureau Chief Rebecca Mackinnon offers a reality check. “We have a problem,” she writes. “We understand how power works in the physical world, but we do not yet have a clear understanding of how power works in the digital realm.” In fact, we probably don’t even think about power when we update our statuses on Twitter, connect with old school friends and upload pictures on Facebook, buy a book based on a recommendation from Amazon or use Mail, Docs, Plus, Maps or search on Google.
The truth is that “technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral,” according to Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology. Google permits and discourages certain things we can do and see, and these are determined by the people behind the machines.
Almost imperceptibly, Google has integrated itself into the fabric of our daily lives: we use it to find and track news and information, to connect with friends, to increase our productivity, to locate us in both the physical and the virtual worlds. With all this ephemeral and seemingly disconnected data, the company delivers the human value, “relevance.” It tells us what is the most appropriate information that will serve our needs. It has become our window to the world of knowledge.
Google’s mission is “to organise the world’s knowledge and make it universally accessible and useful”.
And here’s the most important bit of this statement: ‘make it ... useful’. After all, Google’s ability to deliver a useful thing that solved your problem is what made it the market leader.
There are human value judgments in this. And this is what we need to think about: Google doesn’t deliver us information that’s independent. It is a cyborg: part machine, part human. It filters our problems through a technological system that is, at its most basic level, subjective.
We are critical of the news we read, the programmes we watch, the movies we see, the art we appreciate. We are aware that they are constructs of their creators. We can point to liberal newspapers and conservative TV. We can name a Spielberg film and a Warhol print. So why not the most important technology in the modern era – the thing that we use to navigate knowledge?
Aleks Krotoski is an academic, broadcaster and journalist specialising in technology and interactivity. She hosts BBC Radio 4’s The Digital Human science series and The Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast, and presented the Emmy and Bafta winning BBC 2 series Virtual Revolution (2010). This blog is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You, published by Guardian Books in April 2013.