27 August 2006
Information is owned by the few
Then came the middlemen, resellers like Sears, who discovered that if you brought a number of competing products into the same show room, customers came to that show room to make an educated decision. No longer convinced to buy from one manufacturer, you could shop among several models. This was how resellers made their money: providing you a service you'd pay extra money for. Products and manufacturers that failed to compete well in side-by-side arrangements were abolished in the face of consumer choice.
And finally came the Internet. The World Wide Web provided you with not only all the same information the resellers had, but much more: professional and amateur reviews, community-level and industry-specific emails filled with recommendations and warnings, and manufacturers' contact information in case you had questions. Now you could shop intelligently around the world. Much of the resale industry was demolished, now that their services paled in comparison to what consumers could do themselves. Look at the fate of independent bookstores, who all-but-vanished in a wired world where consumers read reviews and compare prices among Amazon.com, BN.com, and Borders.com, only to buy the book from an Internet-based reseller with massively discounted prices. Travel agents, too, disappeared in the face of Expedia.com and Travelocity.com.
It is thus believed, therefore, that the Internet has empowered the individual.
Not true. I'm sorry to say that it's all an illusion.
First of all, the online resellers are no better than the brick-and-mortar resellers. After browsing the options available at an online travel agency, it's often cheaper to then go to the airline site itself to buy your tickets. For example, if I want to fly from Boston to San Francisco, I'll plug my dates into a search engine at Expedia (and later, Travelocity), find the cheapest option at the best times, and then buy my ticket at Delta.com, Southwest.com, or another airline, or perhaps call a human travel agent after all at AAA and start again. As long as I have access to the source of that service or product -- the manufacturer, the service provider, etc. -- the reseller is a source of information without sale.
Second, the online resellers are limited in scope. Thanks to partnerships and other marketing choices, not all of my options are provided. For example, both Expedia and Travelocity tend to overlook small, unaffiliated airlines. Additionally, at one time (and perhaps still today) Expedia charged extra money if I wanted to buy a ticket for USAir flights, without telling me. The bottom line is that going through an online reseller is not necessary more comprehensive or cheaper than my other options.
But biggest of all, however, is that for me to perform ANY search these days, I'm going to have to use a search engine, like Google.
Without even getting into problems with spam, search engines are responsible for providing me with the information I'll need to do anything on the Web, if I don't already know precisely how and with whom to do it myself. Google is the next Sears. If I wanted to find some good choices for a boy's name, Google will provide me with so many choices that I'll inevitably stop after the first twenty (and more likely, stop after three). Google is filtering my search, valuing some choices above others just as my supermarket creates end-of-aisle displays to sell me things. The only difference is that I know the supermarket makes money from the sale. With search engines, you have no way of guaranteeing you're not clicking on a link the search engine company prefers.
Consider the unscrupulous used car salesman. Let's step through the process.
- I approach the salesman asking a simple question: "I want a reliable automobile for a good price."
- The salesman immediately points out a few models. The first one he shows me is way too expensive. The second one is terrible. In comparison, the third one he shows me seems wonderful at first glance, but then I ask more questions.
- The salesman doesn't give me precisely the information I want. Some of his answers sound ridiculous. He's reluctant to show me any more cars. But when I keep pushing, he finally gives in and shows me a fourth car, without much enthusiasm.
- Finally, I ask for specific kinds of cars, things I've heard rumors about. "What about a Toyota Sienna? Is there a good Ford minivan?" The salesman is completely unhelpful. Clearly this was a terrible place to come shopping. Maybe I'll visit some dealers, or talk to my neighbor.
Let's compare this to a Google search for boys' names. I choose Google here because it's currently a very popular search engine that, people seem to believe, does an honest job in helping people search both online and offline content.
- I start with a simple request: "I want to find a good boy's name." My query is "boys names."
- Google gives me some immediate results. Some of them are immediately terrible and can be skipped over, but it doesn't take long to find something promising. I visit the website and, although looks like what I want might be there, I have a hard time using it. I decide to give up and return to Google and its search result list.
- I try a second website, but I've lost confidence. Maybe it's not Google's fault in any obvious way, but none of these websites is helping me in the way I want to be helped.
- I decide to try some new queries. Maybe "boy names"? Do I need an apostrophe? Or perhaps, because I'm interested in a boy's name that isn't too ethnically different from the names I know in the United States, I should try a search like "American boy names." Unfortunately, my search choices are even worse. I give up. The Web is a terrible place to search for boy names. I'll try the bookstore.
You see? No practical difference.
You might think this exercise was a bit silly, but I'm not wrong. The people, companies, or machines that control what you want are the same entities that control the process. The car salesman controls which cars you buy; even if you trust him, the process is his, not yours. He's just nice about it. The same is true with Google. Sure, we all tend to trust Google -- and what's not to trust or like -- but we do not own the information-seeking process. Google owns it. Here's why:
- Not only doesn't Google find everything, it doesn't tell you there are things missing. The Google database isn't as up-to-date as the Web. Your search words don't match every relevant result in every relevant language. Sure, it looks as if there are 2,600,000 hits for you search, but that doesn't mean it found everything. What's more, you can't even see all 2,600,000 hits if you wanted to! Google shuts you out after only a few hundred.
- Google doesn't explain what it's doing, or why. The search algorithm is never explained; it's a patent secret. We know what kinds of ingredients go into the mix, but we don't know the precise details. And although sponsored links appear separate from search results -- something not all search engines do -- we have no certainty that there are some other sponsorships happening in there.
- If Google is biased, we have no way of knowing. I guarantee Google is biased, because its algorithm is based on how people use the Web. Google News collects stories more often from the AP Wire than the Boston Globe, and more often from the Globe than the Arlington Tab. That's well-intentioned bias. There are less favorable biases, too, like social biases. Because there are fewer computer users who are poor or homeless, the websites of interest to these people never show up at the tops of list. Because the Google default language in the United States is English, U.S.-based news articles are far favored over newspapers in other countries, even when the news takes place in those countries. And because most people have heard of large companies like Amazon.com, smaller companies like independent booksellers are pushed into obscurity. There are also language-based biases. It's easier to find websites related to money because this word is both singular and plural, whereas finance has a plural form. It's easier to search for words like mistress and misogyny, which exist, than for the nonexistent gender-opposite versions. And it's nearly impossible to find a company that sells windows because your search results will be overwhelmed by companies that sell [Microsoft] Windows.
But we don't have a choice. There is too much information in the world. We must go through an information repackager if we're not going to do the work ourselves. (Librarians do the work themselves; the results are of excellent quality, of limited quantity, and of almost negligible relevance for our day-to-day needs of airline tickets and boys' names. Libraries have some excellent information with which we can arm ourselves -- like using Consumer Reports to choose a quality used car -- but in general we still have to take the final steps on our own.)
Regardless of their motives, search engines OWN the information access. Maybe that's good enough. Maybe you're comfortable performing your searches in ignorance of the engine's inner workings, generally satisfied with the results most of the time. But please, that doesn't make it a good thing. What if Google started charging you for some of your searches? What if Google integrated its sponsored links into the search engine (as other engines did or do)?
Here's a real-life, immediate example. Search for Pluto. There has been a ton of recent press regarding Pluto's demotion as a planet in our solar system. Where is all that news in the search results page? There's just a tiny news area that most people won't see because it looks different, and then there's a bunch of sponsored links. This is a branding decision; Google thinks "news" and "sites" are very different things and doesn't even combine their results.
Don't kid yourself. The power of the Internet has moved, but not to you.