The Information Monopoly

From the New York Times Magazine.

...As broadband brought millions of facts, the fantasy of perfect factuality and the satisfaction of fact-checking to everyone. Soon — and astonishingly — Google became much more than trusted; it became shorthand for everything that had been recorded in modern history. The Internet wasn’t the accurate or the inaccurate thing; it was the only thing.

Those of us who think seriously about the creation of facts in society should be concerned about the totalitarian effects of the internet, search engines, and in particular Google on the search for truth. The internet is the first, and often last stop on any quest for information. That information is filtered through search algorithms by a handful of companies, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft (somewhere between 60%-70% is Google alone).

For an Orwellian overlord, the power of this technology is obvious. No longer will tyrants have to burn books, they simply have to drop dangerous information off page one. Dissent is like a wild-fire, and like how a fire can be stopped by removing one of the sides of the Combustion Triangle, dissent can be squashed by sucking away the oxygen of information. You need not remove it all, just make the cost of access to information high enough that the energy that fuels revolution disappears. The crude techniques of airbrushing and book burning are obsolete, just switch up an algorithm and watch the inconvenient truth disappear.

As a society, we must resist the centralization of access to information under a few massive providers. We should demand openness on algorithms, so that search results may be fairly judged, and we should form an organization devoted to looking for such Orwellian modification, cataloging them, and making the public aware of what is hidden.


  1. There is some similar argument against using automatic searches to classify journal entries to optimize your scientific or engineering reading.

  2. On a lightly tangent note, while the Internet has drastically lowered access costs to almost all information, it has done so unequally. Most scholarly works are still locked behind paywalls, while general interest articles are widely available. This has had the effect of making everyone an armchair expert on every topic, shifting the level of the public discourse away from expert and toward layman. This could be a possible mechanism for the growing anti-elite/expert sentiment (alongside notable recent economic and engineering failures). If I can read all about it in 5 minutes of googling, why should I listen to you?

  3. You don't even need to change the algorithm


  4. Actually, paywalls and delineation of paywalls is a political issue. If you want to make a political statement, you should make your journal public, like a hypothetical Journal of Global Stability that publishes global warming denialism. Or if you have technical information that you want to keep out of public view, but if you want to use to influence expert opinion, like an inequitable search algorithm, you should publish, but behind a paywall.