Search Engines – Liberating or restricting society?

The internet has transformed almost every aspect of modern-day life. The ways in which information is now retrieved is heavily reliant on the capabilities of search engine technology. Although this has made a positive impact on society regarding the accessibility and freedom to knowledge, individuals are more sceptical than ever. The ability to connect and access all information has somehow resulted in distrust and the fear of falsified information. It begs to question how the growth in accessibility has become under the control of privatised businesses and their motives creating an outraged-based society.

 

The History of Search Engines 

Innovation in new technologies has seen the organisation of mass information, which was previously reserved for physical copies stored in libraries and archives (Halavais, 2013). The history of search engines is reliant upon the formation of the internet. Search engines are a core component of the internet – created in order to dissect and organise the internet’s content. These computer programs allow for the retrieval of information through keyword searches, offering the most relevant results to questions searches ask.

Popular search engines of the modern era trace their origins back to the 1950s and began as a way to search files on the internet. Nowadays, Google is considered the forefront of all search engines and may even be considered the gateway to the internet. The system is designed to crawl the internet to present pages which are relevant to the user, allowing for efficiency in sourcing information (Seymore, 2011).

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWQ34lEsd0c

Who are the real beneficiaries? 

It has become evident that the main beneficiaries of Search Engines have been the owners and controllers of these technologies. Although the internet has provided society with the freedom and ability to source information, it has also created regulations and constraints regarding the type of information that is accessible. The control Search Engines have over this has created immense transformative effects over society’s political and social perspectives in the quest for economic outcomes.

In a social sense, Search Engines have become an integral tool in everyday life. It has liberated individuals through the ability to find resources and answer queries efficiently. Without this convenience many of the modern day would frankly be lost. However, search engines’ use of algorithms is skewed to predict results based on popularity. Thus, issues of social prejudice have become apparent as search results have reflected biases towards majority groups. This has also created negative connotations and enforced dated stereotypes of minority groups. For example, when searching “black” or “asian” girls, the representations of these demographics were reduced to pornography. This has created misrepresentation of minorities and inaccurately reflected society as it stands in reality (Noble, 2018).

This misrepresentation has been a consequence of the economic benefits it provides to search engines. Search engines are a result of the ‘Attention Economy,’ which believes that individuals’ become restricted as information becomes less manageable (Jarrett, 2014). Google, along with other prominent search engines, utilise a bidding system when it comes to optimizing content. Thus, the economic structure of search engines will favour content provided by websites with more resources and hence economic benefits become the driving factor in the content individuals access (Noble, 2018).

Politically, research shows that search engines have the power to sway democratic elections, as biased search rankings can have an impact on voting behaviour. In 2010, Robert Epstein created an experiment called “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect and it’s Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections.” The experiment consisted of five studies which gathered voters from the United States and tested which candidate they would vote for in the Australian Election. The studies found the ability for search engine results to manipulate certain demographics due to the results the said technology has provided. This concern for political bias in results has also been present in the most recent US presidential election.

 

My Take 

Personally, like most, I would be in disarray without the capabilities Search Engines provide. A time without the ability to search every query is nonexistent to me and almost unimaginable. My study is immensely reliant on the ability to search and google is the main tool I utilise to gather resources. The ability to search the news, academia and informative opinions, without having to leave the house or even have a conversation with anyone has revolutionised the way information is gathered. However, although this access to information has benefited my depth in knowledge and been of great convenience, it has become much more difficult to pinpoint the accurate answers to what is in question. This plays on the concept of the attention economy. I often find myself going through pages and pages of search results even to gather resources of relevance. This is in regards to when I am aware of the information I am seeking – what is scary is when I don’t have previous knowledge on the topic. This is where Search Engines really have the ability to manipulate my perception.

Search Engines use of cookies has made it possible to track individual’s search history. Meaning, these technologies are monitoring my behaviour online and as a result created an online bandwagon when it comes to the outcomes of my searches. I have always been aware search engines had tracking capabilities, but only recently came to realise the impact it could be having on my knowledge or first impressions of new subject matter. However, this is not a new concept. Even without Search Engines, economic and political motives drive the information which is first accessible. In my opinion it is up to the individual to be aware of existing bias, as there are always intentions behind the information provided. Despite this, the internet and further search engines have extended capabilities at a much larger scale. This is where the problem presents itself. The more information, the harder to manage.

 

It is evident that search engines have transformed the ways we search and access information. The initial genuine intentions of search engines would serve to society and liberate masses through freedom of knowledge. However, as privatised search engines such as Google and Yahoo have gained greater power and control over how information is distributed, society has become more restricted. This has had immense effects in both social and political aspects, due to the economic drives said search engines value. Technologies utilised in the forms of algorithms and web cookies, allow for Search Engines to dictate the results of queries. Overall, it is clear modern day Search Engines have economic motives. With this in mind, the only way our online searches can be utilised accurately is for individuals to be aware of possible biases.

 

References

Ciampaglia, G., Flammini, A. & Menczer, F (2015). The production of information in the attention economy. Sci Rep.

 

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

 

Jarrett, K. (2014). A database of intention. In Society of the query reader: Reflections on web search (pp. 16–29). Amsterdam: Institute of networked cultures.

 

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

 

Seymour, T (2011). History Of Search Engines. International Journal of Management & Information Systems. Vol. 15 No. 4.