You Are Trapped In A Bubble

duckduckgo logo
So Google, Yahoo and Bing are sensible names?

Imagine you had a machine that gave you all the information you wanted on any subject in the world. Great, eh?

Until you find out that far from being unbiased and neutral, this information actually panders to your prejudices, confirms your political biases and reflects your own distorted world view. That machine wouldn’t be much use, would it? Worse than useless in fact, because it would be misleading you.

That machine is called a “search engine”.

All the major engines tailor their results according to what you’ve chosen in the past. So if you are more likely to click on links to Fox News, pretty soon Fox is going to dominate your news results. People with narrow views get their window on the world reduced to fit, broadminded people are lulled into thinking everyone else is too.

Alternative engine DuckDuckGo explains the problem nicely here, with jokes. Or here’s a Ted talk.

I’m not saying the search providers ever claimed to be fair and balanced. On the contrary, any sensible person knew that they had inevitable, systemic biases. Results naturally reflected the preoccupations of Internet users rather than the public at large – even now there’s still a difference. The ranking algorithm used plays a huge part, as does commercial pressure. Most deeply, they’re enormously biased just by language. There’s a lot more stuff about, say, the French contribution to space exploration written in French, while American sources inevitably predominate within English.

These biases I can allow for – but how can I allow for my own? I search for information to correct my preconceptions, not confirm them. The exact opposite of what I need is some kind of feedback loop. A monkey behind the monitor, aping my errors. Flinging back my own prejudice. I emphatically object to search providers doing this to me. Who was it that said hell is a hall of mirrors?¹

What can you do? Well one fairly obvious thing, if you don’t want Google or Bing or Yahoo spoon-feeding you personalised results, is to not tell them that it’s you. Log out of your search engine. It makes a difference; when I do I immediately find Fox news stories appear higher in the search results. Which is good – really. I don’t want a falsely benign impression of Rupert Murdoch‘s influence in this world.

They don’t want you to log out of course. They want to be able to match your search queries to the real you. This is one reason why they ply you with added services such as Google+ and Chat and YouTube and Documents and whatever else. If you log out of search, you’re out of all the social stuff too. Sneaky, huh? And as I was saying before, I will not be at all surprised if Microsoft and Facebook join forces to do the same.

So how can I use both Google search and Google+? (Which I do want to, despite all the horrible things I say about them.) Well, you can always use two browsers at once. Logged in on one for the social networking, not logged in on the other for the searching. It’s not illegal or anything. I use Firefox and Chrome in tandem most of the time.

But is it enough? Even logged out they still know your IP address, they probably have cookies. Even if they can’t identify you personally they will still tailor the results to your geographic location. Real neutrality requires stronger medicine. It’s worth investigating alternative engines that guarantee your privacy, like the DuckDuckGo I mentioned above. My preferred solution though is a search anonymizer such as Scroogle or (my favourite) StartingPage. These give you actual Google results without revealing any of your identity to Google – the best of all worlds, arguably.

Is that unfair to Google, getting their search results anonymously? I don’t think so. Search engines are there to help us find things, not to help things find us.

  1. OK it was me.

The Origin Of Landfish

Lilith (1892) by John Collier in Southport Atk...
Nude With Fish

That’s enough frigging Murdoch, let’s get back to reality. I finished repacking all the stuff in the attic! Or almost anyway. The boxes are upstairs, they’re just in the way of where I sleep. Which is not helpful, because I need sleep quite badly now. That’s probably why I’m having all these realisations. I finally realise the truth about snakes for example. Haven’t you? Snakes are land animals that evolved from fish… back into fish. Develop legs, climb out of water, lose legs again. Crazy. So from now on, I’m going to refer to all snakes as “landfish”. People will know what I mean.

Another thing. We have words for societies that are ruled by the rich, that are ruled by the best, by the mob, even a word for societies that are ruled by the worst. But there isn’t a word for rule by the most ruthless. How come?

And then I realised. There used to be, but all copies of that dictionary were burned and the lexicographers and their families shot.

This next story has the virtue of being true. A friend of mine came across the bizarre case of someone who was arrested for burning his own underwear. She wondered if that was arson.

Of course it is, I said. He set his arse on fire.

All right, I think I’m tired enough to sleep on the boxes now.

The Murdoch Show – A Review

Banana cream pie.
Critical Notice

The end of an extraordinary day, says the TV man. Did anyone else think so? To me it seemed a let-down; predictable, unchallenging, frequently tedious.

What we were watching was, as reader jonolan put it, theatre. And not even good theatre, unless you count the intervention by the pieman – that at least was unpredictable. Otherwise its sole moment of flair was Assistant Commissioner John Yates’ surrealistic claim to be a postbox.

The prince came across more like a villain, and it was the king who vacillated. He wanted to apologise as profusely and humbly as possible – yet he wouldn’t accept the blame. Such inconsistency in a character strains credulity.

The best you can say for the production is that it was well rehearsed. The Murdochs delivered their lines effectively enough: News Corp is a highly ethical organisation, the News Of The World a completely inexplicable and isolated aberration. It was at least a daring conceit. And memorable – though mainly because they kept saying it at every opportunity.

Then in the last act a whole new theme was introduced. The News Of The World was revealed by Rebekah Brooks to be a crusading journal, focused only on protecting children and the rights of soldiers, a paragon of what newspapers should be. But the transformation hadn’t been justified by anything that had gone before, so it lacked conviction.

That’s what this show needs more of. Conviction. Preferably several.

Let Watson At Him, Dammit!

They’re not letting Tom Watson at him again. He was the only one who managed to put pressure on the Murdochs. Now they’re being let do their prepared statement stuff once more. It’s nearly a free commercial for them.

Funny – Murdoch seemed to really perk up after the attack. I guess the adrenalin did him the power of good.

That Pie In Full

Who owns this? No idea

First LulzSec last night, now a comedian attacking an old man with a pie, making the Murdochs at least 10% more sympathetic. Anarchists not helping.

Though James did help undo it a little with “The terrible, terrible incidence of voicemail interception around… whatshername.”

Nicola Blackwood is fairly impressive, but her cuteness makes me feel like we’re only looking at her larval stage.

That Pie In Full

Who owns this? No idea

First LulzSec last night, now a comedian attacking an old man with a pie, making the Murdochs at least 10% more sympathetic. Anarchists not helping.

Though James did help undo it a little with “The terrible, terrible incidence of voicemail interception around… whatshername.”

Nicola Blackwood is fairly impressive, but her cuteness makes me feel like we’re only looking at her larval stage.

Murdochs – 1, Bunch of MPs – 0

Well, play suspended. Wonder what the member of the audience hoped to achieve there.

Then, I wonder what anyone was trying to achieve. The committee investigation was too unfocused to do anything of much use. They kept slipping and allowing the Murdochs to reiterate their “We’re sorry, we’re nice really, forgive us” message. Rupert even buttered them up by suggesting that MPs should be paid a million each. Now he’s getting to tell them some of his life story.

I don’t believe they didn’t know perfectly well that some of their papers used illegal techniques to get stories – even if they managed to remain carefully uninformed about who and where and when. But they’ve managed to say the opposite so many times, it’s bound to influence perception. Really, the MPs let them use this as a press conference.