When I was four I interrupted a puppet show. Sceptically peering behind the curtain, I came face to face with a bearded man crouched on the floor. My eyes followed his raised arm up to a shrouded hand. Before I defeated the illusion, the puppet show created a reality. Veiling the bodies that move the puppets and the voices that speak, experience is inextricably linked to the stage’s frame. The frame produced order from a chaotic surplus of information.
I imagine a day, when the mindless tapping of a dull question into Google – to validate some banal uncertainty – jerked my curiosity. I hear my four-year-old self calculating a plan of attack. Sure, there’s more to reality than appearances. But beyond the misguided search for a true reality or a self-righteous critique of the status quo, peeking behind Google’s curtain unveiled a universe—or at least that’s what I wanted it to do. Constructed to harmonise and make real the chaotic and virtual World Wide Web of relationships, from my perspective in a seemingly finite world of discrete people and things, when I Google, I feel like I’m interacting with an infinite.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.
—Borges, The Library of Babel
Before Google, libraries provided place-bound knowledge and a community of knowledge-seekers and knowledge-guiders. The library was a network before the rise of the Network. Setting out from the Stanford Computer Science department on a digital library initiative, Larry Page and Sergei Brin developed Google as an enzyme to the library’s substrate. Like Borges’ Library of Babel, the Web has infinite potential. Knowledge – oral or textual – derives value from its placement in networks—whether Dewey Decimal, Internet, or old-fashioned social. And these networks of people, things and thoughts are constantly changing. But my experience of the ordered realities framed by the library and the puppet show is in the same material language as the finite/discrete world I inhabit.
The materiality of digital technologies feels different. I experience information on the Web as something free and intangible. I can’t help but remain aware of the numerical foundation of digital objects, and how these 1s and 0s conflate space and time. More than books in a library, hyperlinked Web pages seem obviously defined by their position in a constantly (infinitely) expanding network—defined by what they link to and what links to them. Google makes the abstract and seemingly virtual universe of numbers and relationships real, something that I can experience and think through in my finite world. Google’s algorithms produce discrete knowledge from big data. They create harmony from the chaos of information overload, alleviating the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what lies within each library room, on each shelf, in each book, on each page, and on each line. Google depicts a relationship between a virtual and an actual which it alone is able to mediate between and render comprehensible for human minds. While I can physically look behind the curtain that conceals the puppeteer, lifting the curtain on Google unveils a cacophony in Technologese. HTML, Java, C++, Python, and PHP are just a few of the languages Google speaks. And even if I could speak them too, the algorithmic secret sauce that orders Web pages is securely hidden.
Érik Desmazières, La Bibliothèque de Babel
Mathew Battles explains the changes made by the Web in reference to the 18th century’s order of knowledge which was top-down, like the hierarchy of the church and sovereign society. This was the age of the encyclopaedia, where knowledge was concrete, compartmentalised, and put in alphabetical order. This data was ordered extrinsically, embedded within an external system of classification. Google defines data in terms of its relationships and sets out to order information based on its intrinsic properties. Their PageRank algorithm equates the value of a page with the probability that a random Web-surfer would end up on it. If a page is linked to more, and by pages which are themselves linked to more, there is a higher chance that a random surfer clicking links would end up on it. But what does this mean for us? All the self-proclaimed individuals, the deviants from the norm, those misunderstood by the average!
On the Web, it seems that the individual replaces the expert. But it’s Google who divines individual wants from web-history, geographical context, and PageRank, claiming to know what I’m looking for better than I do. David Weinberger describes the altered infrastructure of knowledge—its shape and nature has changed such that it becomes inextricable from the digital network that affects it. Google transforms my brain, and is enmeshed with my being like a cerebral tri-sphere. Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner describe the ‘Google effect’ as a phenomenon where people with regular Internet access display a decreased ability to recall specific information and instead display higher ability to recall where to find it. More than an external hard drive where I place my knowledge for safe keeping, Google becomes an extension of my internal memory. The human mind is technologically augmented by Google in such a way that they become inseparable.
But Google works to go beyond human cognition. In 2012, they hired Ray Kurzweil, a futurist speeding towards the technological singularity, developing artificial intelligence systems that surpass the human mind. And earlier this year, Google acquired DeepMind, an expert in artificial intelligence systems that learn. This is to allow Google to develop an even better “understanding” of individual’s semantic meaning, an attempt to fill all the gaps in its knowledge such that all the machine’s subjective judgments are accepted like those formed by human subjectivity. Subjectivity becomes objectively mechanised, like the algorithmic determination of the subjective order of documents relevant to an individual’s query.
Not only is knowledge contingent on the network, but knowledge of the self is contingent on it too. The algorithm impacts my most intimate ideas of how I am what I am. In Anthony Giddens’ theory of our present ‘high-modern’ condition, individuals forge their identities. The self and body are products of self-determination. In this publication, Rebecca Fitzsimons explains the rise of ‘cyberchondria’ through the disembodiment online existence engenders: “It’s almost as if the very nature of the disembodying internet experience triggers a kind of automatic, displaced hyper-awareness of the body—only one that is so warped and disconnected to physical reality that it can be supremely disturbing.” Our perception of our own bodies becomes contingent on the network, distorted by limited sensory and physical online interactions. Like ‘selfies’ taken and uploaded to social networking sites so as to actualise the self on the Web, Googling the ailments people perceive to be afflicting their bodies actualises those bodies so they too can be known in terms of the network, materialised by Google like the rest of my knowledge.
In 2009, Google published findings that it could harness the potential of search data to detect flu outbreaks weeks before the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Analysing queries about flu symptoms, Google argued they could accurately estimate the current level of influenza in the each region of the US with a lag of only one day. At the time, these findings were widely touted by Google to the media as evidence of the power of Internet data as a form of collective intelligence. But in 2013, it was found that Google’s flu trends widely overestimated flu cases in the United States over the past several years, in many cases by a factor of 50% of what the CDC recorded.
This margin is perhaps so high because some of the queries about flu-like symptoms were not afforded by influenza, but by Google itself. Failing to consider how it affects practice in unintended ways, Google’s flu predictions did not take into account how searching is not merely the actualisation of ordered knowledge, but of minds, bodies and selves. In creating knowledge to which it is invisibly tethered, Google affects how people experience their worlds.
I use Google not only to search the Web but also for email and automated backup. I imagine how their algorithms scour my thoughts. Would it only be used for the mechanised targeting of advertisements? Or might too many references to Google itself mean my words would be read by human (or more advanced algorithmic) eyes? In any case, Google has already read these words in some capacity. I legally bound myself to such use. In using Google’s services, I agree not only to their terms and conditions, but to be affected by their system of order. As I developed an understanding of how Google operates, the way I used and thought about the Web changed. I discovered you could download browser extensions to block not only advertisements, but tracking too. I deleted my Google Plus account. This was after learning that in following their prompts to set up a page on the social networking site, I had agreed for all Google’s data about me to be linked to the identity I presented there.
In shrouding its puppeteer in technical (and conceptual) languages I cannot understand, Google is constructed to be experienced as a disruptive interaction with an infinite, defined in terms of the potential of information. The curious four-year-old inside me lifts one curtain to reveal an infinite number of more curtains to be lifted.