Gimme dat algo-rithm

A reference to a long, filmed report at the start of a fairly empty morning provided my theme for the day – “Corporate Pressure”. The issue arose on Radio 4’s Start the Week, too, with a Google boss defending the company’s actions over access to data – “You use algorithms to select what people want to know?” and “You put “vaccine safety” into Google and you get totally different references to when you type “vaccine risks” and, of course, “How do you justify such low tax payments?”

Corporate pressure arose in a blog on the lengths internet users in favour of vaccination will go to try to knock down anti-vaccinators’ cases :

After a general chat about the histrionics and hysteria found in such postings, and their frequent out and out lies, he went on to provide a telling, specific case study. He forwarded a complete training session/tutorial on “how to sabotage anti-vac discussions”. Were these ardent views held by amateurs or something rather more organised? To me, it was the latter and others took that view as well. The eventual postings may come from amateurs but this was clearly top-down organisation in defence of a position, of an industry, indeed, and not just individuals’ beliefs.

One guy then suggested everyone ought to watch to help contextualise the discussion and because it was “a film everyone should watch”.

So I did. Psywar is psychological warfare, of course, and this study attempts to put the issue in perspective. After all, those that have achieved monoplolistic situations – why wouldn’t they work their hardest to retain what they’ve got – come what may?

The film’s a bit long, so slow from time to time, but filled with a clear history of corporate and governmental direction and so, inevitably, misdirection of popular understanding. It’s the background to the progression of the twentieth century and describes the morphing of nineteenth century informational advertising of into the consumer conditioning and social constrainment of modern, multi media techniques. In the era of information overload, the information industry takes your decisions for you and most people are relieved at this – if they ever even notice.

Further, it strongly suggests an essential element to present thought is, simply, the belief that society is just too complicated for there to be sensible recourse to democratic interactions between the ruling “Elites” and their general public. Hence the UK’s five year fixed term career parliaments and Eton School teaching their pupils how to take tricky decisions when in power. Because they will be one day……

Yes, so on the radio we had Google executive Eric Schmidt quite on the defensive, but the discussion on deriving search outcomes was most informative. He talked of frequently updating these algorithms to interpret the nature of searches and the suggested responses and how he was proud of this constant improvement. A second panelist was horrified – “we’re heading towards consensus rather than truth running our world”. This seems indeed to be a strong risk as “consensus” can clearly be driven by money and weight of input rather than by objective interpretation of all the relevant data and, indeed, the derivation of plans to acquire additional information when required.

There was a final flurry as the second guy tried to add to his point and so bemoaned the fact that this seemed to imply standardisation and reduced diversity of input for the ranging intellect, be it artistic, political, scientific or whatever but Schmidt rounded on him strongly and pointed out that never has there been anything like the quantity of diverse materials available to everyone. We are living in the information age. Google does not make your choices, he pointed out with relief in his voice, we just get the information to you.

So long as it has not been corrupted before you handle it, Eric – that, I would suggest, is your greatest problem. Because then you follow the rule “Rubbish in – rubbish out”. And, of course, this is where the grim impact of generating income arises, with sponsored listings and savvy, manipulative, powerful information providers bending the algo-rhythms in discordant manner so that you dance to their music. It’s interesting to consider Wikipedia here and see how their open editorial system has still allowed it to drift under too strong an influence from this same consensus rather than truth cloud. In the time of Columbus, Wikipedia would have insisted that the Earth was flat and in Salem would have hanged “the witches”.

Possibly most intriguing, and certainly most amusingly, Schmidt seemed uncertain as to what Google’s operational status was and referring to the company as a “country” and then not actually correcting himself. He’s made this “mistake” before apparently and perhaps it is a more useful manner to consider the organisation. Why should countries be defined by geographical parameters? Fancy having a Google passport and thereby access to anywhere on the planet!

By the way, and as a sort of PS, I do have what seems a very functional solution to the ridiculously low tax take of national governments from the likes of Google, Star-bucks, Tesco etc etc. Quite simply governments should roll out licensing systems to these companies. So Google’s might be one billion pounds per annum, based on perceived income derived from the country. Still take taxes, of course, but sell the right to trade and so get them at their own game.

About greencentre

Non grant supported hence independent scientist, green activist, writer and forest planter.
This entry was posted in BBC, Consensus not truth, Corporate pressure, Google, Information access, Institutional stagnation. Bookmark the permalink.

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