Secrets and Lies — and Google

There is an almost hysterical paranoia that permeates the air these days, concerning the information that is being collected about us and helping us make decisions, in many ways without our knowledge. What am I talking about? The secret of success for everything from Google searches to your mortgage approval process: algorithms.

And secret they are. Much of the fear about them is that they are “black boxes” about which we know little, and yet they are making decisions for us every day. In the process, some worry, they are taking away our capacity for decision-making and automating processes in which human input may be necessary to correct inconsistencies or mistakes. An extended report in The Globe & Mail last week examined the impact such incomprehensible and inaccessible mathematical formulas can have: according to the data collected, buying floor protectors at Canadian Tire might signal a conscientious borrower; late-night website browsing may indicate anxiousness and, in combination with a host of other minor activities, derail a credit application.

Google is another example: it uses complex algorithms to filter information to find exactly what it thinks we need, or, as its mission statement says, to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It also provides us with ads, of course, based on our search history and preferences and in theory tailored to our needs. Even online dating websites such as OkCupid and eHarmony make extensive use of algorithms to predict who will make a good match. The information that comes out of such sites is a fascinating look at the likes and dislikes of a broad cross-section of the population.

The formulas used are secret, of course, in order to protect the competitive advantages of the organizations they serve. What surprises me is why there is such intense fear of them, these unknown equations that guide our choices. We are not forced to click on any of the links Google serves up. We’re not even forced to use Google as our search engine. If we want a local plumber, we can always use the Yellow Pages, where prominence is determined by advertising payments. Is this any better?

Perhaps it is the lack of control that is so terrifying. Because algorithms filter information for us, there is an unimaginable amount that we just never see. We literally don’t know what we don’t know. Somehow this seems more sinister than the way it used to be when we were all relatively more ignorant, perhaps because, through the Internet, we are now aware of there being a lot more information out there.

Does Google have a sinister hidden agenda? One would think that such a thing would go against its code of conduct of not being evil. Does OkCupid? Likely not, but in filtering information to satisfy our (perceived) needs and wants, argues Alexis Madrigal in this month’s Atlantic, algorithms can serve to maintain the status quo – or even prevent shifts in societal norms:

By drawing on data about the world we live in, [algorithms] end up reinforcing whatever societal values happen to be dominant, without our even noticing. They are normativity made into code—albeit a code that we barely understand, even as it shapes our lives.

Madrigal goes on to say that Google, OkCupid and their ilk give us only “a desiccated kind of choice,” and that we need to break the patterns by choosing against type. We need to make ourselves less predictable, to click unexpected links and choose unexpected partners, presumably in order to ensure that society in general doesn’t stagnate. Don’t trust The Man and all that.

The growing paranoia that unseen and unchecked forces are predicting – even controlling – our behaviour seems to be growing even faster than fear of Yemeni terrorists. I think it relates back to our growing cynicism and distrust toward all large organizations. Believing in anything at all is seen by many as a mug’s game. Trust in governments is ever-declining, the more we find out about how they conceal the truth from citizens, or tap their phone lines, or watch their goings-on. People now, on average, trust NGOs (even ones that are affiliated with large government organizations) much more than governments themselves, and certainly more than the politicians and bureaucrats that staff them. Faith in organized religion has plummeted amid endless sex scandals that are officially acknowledged too late (if at all), refusals from the highest levels to acknowledge the damage done by outdated policies, and generally divergent values from most Westerners about gay marriage, reproductive rights, and female clergy members.

I’ve written before about what apathy and extreme cynicism look like in modern society. I neglected to mention an obsession with knowing the “truth,” even if part of us believes that truth to be fictional or compromised. Hence the enduring popularity of the “exposé,” tabloid journalism, insider specials, and now WikiLeaks, the non-profit whistle-blower organization that is making news (again) this week with the release of thousands of diplomatic cables sent by US ambassadors. Despite pleas from the White House not to release the information (potentially jeopardizing thousands of lives, and undermining US diplomacy and counter-terrorism efforts), the obsession to reveal won out, and the cables were posted anyway.

Why? Secrets may not be entirely benign, but what seems to be missing from the discussion is the idea that neither might their release be. In an age of over-sharing, of laying open our most personal thoughts for the world to see, is even the necessary secrecy of diplomacy unwelcome? It has fallen victim to the public’s need to know anything and everything — or else there must be some ominous conspiracy at play. In democracies, utter transparency seems to be the only option palatable to citizens, and we are unnerved when it isn’t available, so we turn to (often illegal) means of obtaining information, such as WikiLeaks.

It seems we are experiencing a seismic shift in the way we are continually using and desiring more information.  Should we expect it to be entirely accessible at all times, to all people? Knowledge is power, as they say, and everybody wants more. The irony, of course, is that everybody also wants privacy: WikiLeaks, for example, will not disclose its sources, or its founders. One wonders how long they can expect to keep that a secret.

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