One of the crucial lessons you’re taught in game development is that, when something doesn’t seem to work, the player’s first instinct is to adjust their behaviour because “I must be doing something wrong.” Approached right, this encourages experimentation on the part of the user/player, particularly when that willingness to adjust behaviour is rewarded with surprise goodies. However, there is the very real possibility that the player will come to the realisation that the system is flawed or designed in ways that undermine the very purpose of using the system. It then makes the player feel betrayed because she first blamed herself when the fault was actually yours. In such cases, you can quickly lose the player. Forever.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
– Mark Twain
So in this blog I like to throw pictures in between to break the monotony of long stretches of text a little bit. Yes, I know I should keep the word count down but where would I find the time? Anyway, while editing the last article about security, I was having trouble finding the right pictures to go with it and, after a few minutes, I realised the source of my frustration: the fault was not mine.
Now, I’m a fairly decent user of tools like search engines so I know that a few tweaks in your search parameters can give you instant gold. So I might end a search with “filetype:pdf” to limit results to pdf files, or “!w mango” if I want to search for mangoes on Wikipedia without the extra few clicks of going to Wikipedia first, little things like that. And I hear that for most people, if it doesn’t appear on the first page then it doesn’t exist, but over the years I’ve found some absolute gems by digging a few pages down. The point is, at risk of being immodest, when I search for stuff I have a pretty good idea of how to do it right, and will persevere longer than most. And yet I got super frustrated because the search engines (I used 2 of them), when they could not give me results that fit my (tweaked) search terms, flooded me with false positives instead.
The realisation is profound because, for me, it changes everything.
To begin with, it confirms that the current revenue model of most search engines is engineered, not to give you the results you need, but the results that will lead you in whatever direction brings them the most data and, consequently, profit. This is also true of sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and, what really broke my heart to learn, Quora. Quora’s really hurt because I believed so much in the concept, but it gradually became clearer that the Quora algorithm seemed to keep pushing me towards the same things, along the same lines, which was nice, at first, but I joined Quora to learn new things and hear new arguments, not run around in comfortable circles. Long story short, I have deleted my Quora profile and this is one of the major reasons why.
So when you go on your favourite search engine and search for, say, “group rate pause collect wheel” (chosen by a random selector), what do you get? First of all, you may not get the same results as I do, at least not results ordered in the same way, particularly if we are both signed in to the engine. For me, this is one of the catalysts that encourage stuff like “alternative facts” in this post-truth world. The business models of the Internet giants are designed to keep people in filter bubbles like cows to be milked.
False positive: a result that shows something is present when it really is not.
– Merriam-Webster dictionary
It also means that the search engines, good as they are, operate on algorithms and a business model whose major flaw is that they are no longer designed to primarily do the job that users come to them to do. Basically, giving you the best results to get you to your destination quicker is now of secondary importance, if at all. While it may seem like a trifling matter, in some ways it is death by a thousand cuts because we may just wake up one morning having been detoured so much that we have made a full 180-turn.
Search engines are very useful tools…when they work. But now because the business model is based on advertising and keeping users (read: products) on sites for as long as possible, we are inundated with innumerable results that are, at best, distracting, at worst, deceptive and mis-directional.
Distraction is a real problem.
Misdirection too because, with the increasingly dwindling attention span of humanity, I would venture to argue that a cluster of irrelevant (but stimulating) search “results” are more likely to divert the attention of anyone searching, thus potentially diluting the quality of humanity’s pool of collective knowledge. This occurs because the sum total of our collective common knowledge is what determines the collective conversation and drives society forwards or backwards.
Sure, it would be awesome if researchers, policymakers and influencers could use the superhuman powers we sometimes ascribe to them to ignore the distractions and get the job done. But they are just as human as the rest of us, sometimes even more so. Research is tedious stuff, it’s part of the reason why we leave it to those of a particular temperament while we just focus on retweeting sensational stuff. But can they effectively do their work in this system? They already have a difficult time getting the rest of us to focus on what’s important and not misrepresent their findings. And we are facing the same problem too.
So what’s the solution?
To be clear, I don’t believe that any single solution could work. The problems run too deep and have become so intertwined with our regular lives that attempting to extricate it might cause us all to unravel. So, among the many solutions out there, I’d just like to add one more.
A nonprofit search engine. Like Wikipedia or other open source initiatives in the decentralization movement, it could serve as a trust for all humanity in our search for solving problems and enlightenment. I think it might actually work. The power we have unwittingly given up to massive corporations is arguably something that should be treated as a public utility. The regulation and implementation will of course be difficult but hopefully you can see how beneficial it could be to future generations. Otherwise we might find that the more enlightened create their own special tools, leaving the rest of us in a closed space which is allowed to be mined for profit but not for the benefit of humanity. A terrible situation that will only lead to more human downgrading. Either way, I think this is a conversation we should ALL be having.