The long, tortured quest to the unbiased information when you Google it

Google Search
Picture of Google search interface Image: eldersell.com, all rights reserved

By Ziwei Huang

 

At present, Google has remained the dominant player in search industry across globe for centuries with its reliance on hyperlinks as a measure of relevance performed and enormous computing resources. With a focus on the role of a technological innovation, I will draw on relevant scholarships and argue Google’s significant role in reinforcing the dominant discursive regimes in production the cultural and political inequalities.

This essay foregrounds the presence of the minority on Google search results as interpreters and audiences, to emphasis how commercial search engines supported by profit-driven imperatives have been playing a prominent role in intensifying and reinforcing the relation of power in today’s masculinist and capitalist dominance. The first section will provide an overview of the operation of Google, while section two will look into its historical trends in communication media. Moreover, the politics and economics of Google as internetworked technology are also considered and examined by interrogating its revolutionary business model. Lastly, Google’s transformative effect in reflecting the pre-existed social prejudices and inequalities will be explored.

 

What is Google

According to Havalais (2013), a basic understanding of search engine might refer to ‘an information retrieval system that allow for keyword searches of distributed digital texts’ (p.5). However, by randomly ask someone you may meet at street, you are likely to get a much more simple and direct answer, that is Google, as of which the name has become a verb for searching online. In fact, Google properties are not only about search engine, which is easily the most famous and prevalently used one by public though, but the most popular sites of any kind in the world, ranging from personal email, entertainment webs to other utilities. Google, is an example of what James Beninger (2009) theorizes a movement from reliance on personal relationships and face to face interactions, to be capable to managerially form and run society across time and distance at interpersonal and international level, —— the so called ‘technology of control’(pp.8-9). The indexed material showcased from Google as a retrieval system gives us the feeling of control, plus techniques and cues of individualistic selection.

 

The historical beginnings of Google

As industry analyst John Battelle stated in his article The Birth of Google released on Wired, Google was started up by two students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who were both from Stanford University and got to know each other because of the research project ‘BackRub’. The idea for Google’s search architecture originated from Page’s perception on world wide web’s link structure as a huge graph, which would reveal not just who was linking to whom, but the importance of who linked to whom, based on the number and nature of backlinks as valuable information to that page.

Picture of 1998 Google cofounders Larry Page, left, and Sergey Brin. Image: William Mercer McLeod, all rights reserved
Picture of 1998 Google cofounders Larry Page, left, and Sergey Brin.
Image: William Mercer McLeod, all rights reserved

Back in 1996, in an attempt to score the backlink data that came from sources with a measure of importance, Page and Brin developed the PageRank algorithm, which was a breakthrough in crafting today’s Google. By testing their hypothesis that search engine operated on the basis of PageRank would produce better results, the pair used Stanford’s websites to lay the foundation for their search engine. In 1998, The domain google.com was registered and rapidly seized an enormous proportion of the global search market for being reputed for its ‘rewards and penalty of links’ and restricted distraction from advertising pop-ups (Havalais, 2013, p.24-27). Then, Google has grown into something of a legend with extraordinary amount of computing resources and started off its monopoly status in search industry.

 

Google— behind its innovative business model

Basically, Google has adopted the ‘affiliation business model’ (p.91) which lies in gaining access to expanded customer base to backing third parties to market their products on Google’s search listings and in return charge the commissions as a web host. Based on Google’s PageRank algorithms which immediately provide searchers’ results of ‘preemptingintention’(p.22) drawn on data of each user’s past behavior in accordance with a broad range of free services such as personal calendars, email services and maps, as well as specializing in other Internet technologies such as cloud computing, Google is able to successfully implement ‘target advertising’ (p. 181) by introducing AdWords depending on the search terms entered by the user, which attempts to assist the company and business partners to avoid coverage waste and communicate the ads which are adjusted specific to the audience efficiently.

Picture of Affiliation: The business model of Google Affiliate Network Screenshot by Gassmann et al CC BY 2.0
Picture of Affiliation: The business model of Google Affiliate Network Screenshot by Gassmann et al CC BY 2.0

Such business model provides insights how Google has very successfully operated in the context of what Simon (1969, pp.40-41) noted as ‘attention economy’ ——when information consumes the attention of its recipients and we are overwhelmed in the information-rich world, our attention has become a scarce and valuable commodity. Thus, a need to allocate our attention efficiently has been incited in economic and political concerns. Google as a transformative internetworked technology, according to Nobel (2018), obtains extraordinary power in focusing users’ attention towards the interests of ‘the neoliberal capital and social elites’ (p.36).

As expressed above, Google acts as an affiliate and charges the commissions on clicks and impressions by arranging and showcasing the most influential paid advertisers’ banner ads on its search listings. Reversely, it can place its own products prior to others’ or encourage certain results to the top without paying or concerning the relevance of importance for users since Google can opt to act as its own affiliate network provider and so is the most influential one on Internet. In 2017, Google was fined 2.42 billion euro for breaching the antitrust rules with its online shopping service by dropping its rivals shopping service on page four of search piles, while its own was on the top (ABC, 2017). In this light, Google has been arguably criticized for going sideways from search neutrality in terms of its information monopolies and economic influences.

 

Picture of a guide to Google AdWords Image: Uwpgroup.co.uk, all rights reserved
Picture of a guide to Google AdWords
Image: Uwpgroup.co.uk, all rights reserved

 

 

Social stereotypes in Google’s communication management

Google produces hypersexual and hyperracialised prejudices, and proliferates and normalizes such prejudices among searchers based on the presumption that the results exhibited on search engine pile are deemed factual and credible (Nobel, 2018, p.36).

 

Video of Safiya Noble on bias in algorithms.

Source: TEDx Talks, YouTube

 

As noted by Nobel (2018), the problematic presentation of black women on Google’s search pile is replicated from ‘the existing offline social relations and deeply embedded in the materiality of technological output’ on the basis of its in-built algorithmic bias towards ‘interest of racialized capital system’ (p.32). This can really connect seamlessly with the discussion of what Foucault has been argued ——‘a policing of sex’(1973, p.25), where sexualities are categorized as very specific ‘set of discourses’ and have been disciplined or marginalised by regimes (Foucault, as cited in Probyn, 1997, p.141). Here, the centralized, idealized and normalized presentation of Asian girls on the top of search engine pile as objects of sexual gratification is a result of the overall patriarchally favored social discourses.

 

Picture showing first page of image search results on Keywords “Asian girls,” Oct 30, 2020. Image: Google search engine, all rights reserved
Picture showing first page of image search results on Keywords “Asian girls,” Oct 30, 2020.
Image: Google search engine, all rights reserved

 

Evidence that demonstrates Google’s image-based query results providing spaces where gender and racial biases constantly persist can be drawn from the disproportional presentation between males and females, and between whites and people of color. For instance, when I search for ‘police officer in Australia’ via Google’s image search, the vast majority of results are pictures of white men in uniform, while women are underrepresented on Google’s search pile. However, according to AFP staff statistics (2019), the proportion of females has accounted for over one thirds of the total staffs in policing. Nevertheless, what I find even more troubling here is that the Asian -Australian police officer is completely absent from Google’s search listings. Here, in a masculinist and capitalist dominance, whites and males are easily the defaulted majority, and the majority dominates and rules in search engine results. In other words, the predominated discourses favored by men’s desire and practice are made real once again from offline to online, and are able to influence the values that surround the minority groups’ identities in search engine in stereotypical or pornographic ways. This is the reason why I argue that Google as a transformative innovation is susceptible to the influence of masculinist and capitalist dominance.

Picture showing first page of image search results on Keywords “Police officer in Australia,” Oct 30, 2020. Image: Google search engine, all rights reserved
Picture showing first page of image search results on Keywords “Police officer in Australia,” Oct 30, 2020.
Image: Google search engine, all rights reserved

 

Final note

Overall, Google has been an influential form of internet transformation by introducing innovative search architecture based on algorithms in hopes to emphasis interpersonal coordination and peer to peer engagement and took advantage of the internet’s networked communities to access to diversified markets and benefited its influential paid advertisers. However, considering Google’s monopoly status in information search industry and its formation and uses are in settings where oppressive power is constantly exercised, I should help you raise public awareness that the contextual meaning of individuals’ identities on Google is not purely natural given or represented factual, but a deliberate result of historical and cultural manipulation and intervention through certain discursive regimes and economic influences.

 

References:

ABC News (2017). Google fined record $3.57 billion by European Union over shopping service. June 27. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-27/google-fined-record-$3.57-billion-by-european-union/8657470

AFP. (2019, April 1). AFP staff statistics. Retrieved from AFP: https://www.afp.gov.au/news-media/facts-and-stats/afp-staff-statistics

Battelle, J. (2005, January 8). The Birth of Google. Retrieved October 2020, from Wired: https://www.wired.com/2005/08/battelle/

Beninger, J. (2009). The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society (pp.8-9). Harvard university press.

Foucault, M. (1978). Incitement to discourse. In M. Foucault, The history of sexuality (pp. 17-35). New York: Pantheon Books.

Gassmann, O., Frankenberger, K., & Csik, M. (2014). The business model navigator: 55 models that will revolutionise your business. Pearson UK.

Halavais, A. (2013). The engines. In Search engine society (pp. 5-31). Cambridge, UK: Malden, MA: Polity.

Jarrett, K. (2014). A database of intention? Society of the query reader: Reflections on Web search, 16-29.

Nobel, U. (2018). A society, searching. In Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism (pp. 15-63). New York University.

Probyn, E. (1997). Michel Foucault and the uses of sexuality. In Lesbian and gay studies : a critical introduction (pp. 133-146). London, Washington: Cassell.

Simon, H. A. (1969). Designing organizations for an information-rich world(pp.37-52). Brookings Institute Lecture.

TEDx Talks (Publisher).(2014). How biased are our algorithms? [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved fromhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXuJ8yQf6dI

 

 

Avatar
About Ziwei Huang 2 Articles
An intuitive, extroverted and empathetic campaigner.