Take Me To Your Media

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
This is what my Media Centre PC doesn't resemble most

I’m still hiding in a happy kernel of geekery, away from a cruel and now markedly more expensive world. Much of last night was spent setting up the new old PC as what I expansively call a “Media Centre”. That is of course just fancy talk for a computer attached to a TV, worthwhile though since we got a wide-screen one. (Well, wide-ish.) My mother will appreciate this when she gets the hang of it, but things may be a bit confusing for the transition. I’d barely got her to stop calling the computer monitor “the TV”, now I seem to have arbitrarily reversed my position.

But I’m sitting here writing this on my knees. With a wireless keyboard on my knees, I mean. I’m not on my knees. And to clarify my clarification, I didn’t think that you thought I was writing this column on my knees, with a pen. I have the keyboard on my knees, but the words are appearing on the TV. Which is the sort of thing people liked to do in science fiction films. Cool. And simultaneously – as it is a fairly wide screens – I’m also catching up with episodes of QI on YouTube. (The one with Nina Conti the ventriloquist.)

Ideally the screen would have about four times the area, but this is actually pretty nice. If nothing else, it improves my work posture – from hunched over on the couch to sitting back on the couch. I feel slightly better-off already.

Patriots And Paranoids

WTC antes9-11
They weren't much to look at but they were full of people

The 9/11 attack was brilliantly simple in its planning. All it required was a little organisation, and the mental capability to slaughter thousands of innocent strangers. Brilliantly successful too; its objective, to foster conflict between the West and Islam, seems to have been largely realised. Yet ten years on, a significant proportion of people insist on believing a far more complex explanation: That 9/11 was faked, not an attack but an inside job.

I say a significant proportion; it’s far from a majority, though any time at all spent on YouTube might persuade you otherwise. (One wide-ranging poll did find that less than half respondents thought that Islamists were responsible, but that survey included many people in Islamic countries naturally unwilling to be associated with the atrocity.) A 2007 Zogby poll (PDF) sponsored by conspiracy theorists themselves found that something approaching a quarter of Americans thought that elements within their government were complicit in the attack. This figure has probably dropped somewhat since Bush and Cheney left office peaceably, but there is still a sizeable minority – of Americans – who believe the US government was complicit in or even responsible for the most deadly attack on America in its history. Why?

I say ‘insist on believing’ because it takes an effort of will to decide that America was responsible for the attack on America. Even the ‘moderate’ version – that forces within the US government were merely complicit in the attack – asks us to believe that members of a Republican administration were willing to stand by and allow a devastatingly effective attack by genuine terrorists on the heart of America’s commercial interests, because they believed they could gain by it in some way. More ambitious theorists would have us believe that they blew the towers up with carefully set demolition charges, then flew planes full of passengers into them merely as a distraction.

Why do so many people, both Americans and their enemies, persist in this? Well, they have one telling thing in common: Both need to believe in the strength of America. For its enemies, the idea that a tiny terrorist outfit can wreak such destruction simply doesn’t fit with the image of a Great Satan.

By the same token, the Americans who think their own government destroyed the World Trade Center in order to make war and profit are patriots. They still believe that the one power on Earth capable of inflicting such terrible damage on the US could only be the US itself. These conspiracy theorists are not cynics. On the contrary, they have faith in America.

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.