Searching for answers

As the essential tool for the wired generation, Google's search engine has come to embody the zeitgeist of the noughties -- one of information overload and instant gratification. But is it dangerous for a tech company to have such cultural influence?

The recent inclusion of the verb "google" in one of the world's eminent dictionaries cements the tech giant's status as a cultural phenomenon. As the essential tool for the wired generation, Google's search engine has come to embody the zeitgeist of the noughties -- one of information overload and instant gratification.

While google.com continues to inordinately out-traffic its rivals and the practice of "googling" is now standard for everything from university research to blind-date background checks, some have begun to question Google's search-related practices. Three main areas have been cause for recent concern -- the company's cooperation with the Chinese government to censor search results in its Chinese version; the alleged competitive manipulation of page rankings that leads to sites being starved of traffic; and the monitoring and storage of search queries.

These worries all received attention in the documentary Google: Behind the screen, which aired in one of the few designated non-football slots on SBS last week. The program, though occasionally a mite sensationalist in its approach, posed the question of whether there is a danger in allowing Google to be the guardian of global data. The analogy offered was an intriguing one: is viewing the world's information through the filter of Google's search algorithm akin to learning everything from a single encyclopedia? What are the perils of "Google's truth" -- as determined by what search results appear when a word or phrase is entered into that text field on the iconic homepage -- becoming gospel?

One part of the documentary that struck a chord was the assertion that both in its search engine and in newer, wildly ambitious ventures such as Google Earth and Google Books, the company has taken a "design the tech first, worry about the societal implications later" approach. We were all blown away by the cool factor of Google Earth when it first arrived, but the notion that making aerial images of government sites publicly available may pose a security risk hit shortly after. Similarly, Google's print project has the noble aim of providing a globally accessible library of virtual books. But do we really want to surrender a digital library of the world's literature to a corporation?

These concerns may seem unfounded given the company's image, with its "Don't Be Evil" motto and emphasis on the volleyball games and well-stocked drinks fridge enjoyed by its young and funky employees. But even if Google's ambitions are innocent and grounded in a quest to make information accessible to all, the implications of a tech company having such influence over cultural and societal development are certainly food for thought.

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