Monday, 20 July 2015

The Many Maps of Google

Google is the deity of our secularized world. It opens up a whole world of information to one’s fingertips, and as someone who is given to ‘googling’ random questions quite often, I am quite aware of its seductions and the pleasures of giving in to them. Criticism of Google is not entirely unfamiliar either: for one, information is not the same as insight. The ability to process information, discern between different sources and be alert to its nuances requires not just critical rigour but also self-reflexivity and plain old time. Not everything is immediately comprehensible, and meaning is created as much through memory and mediation as in the moment itself. To use a cliché, information, knowledge and wisdom are different things. Another problem with Google is that it augments confirmation bias by tailoring our search results to our previous preferences and our personality profiles. (Facebook does the same thing). We end up living in bubbles of our own making.
To use a routine example, if I do a search for any problem that I am facing about my toddler, Google’s search results will be entirely reasonable, based on popularity. I will click some sites, and soon find a solution on some site that makes sense to me. Next time, Google’s search results will tend to return to the websites I have already visited, and push those wherein I spent the maximum time and so on. Over time, Google will know which are my trusted websites, and will discard those that I do not engage with (you can read more about this process here). Over time, my results will come from a repertoire of familiar and a few unfamiliar sources, which are then the sources of my information. Convenient? Definitely. But note, with every search my possibility of coming across something that would normally not interest me decreases. Quite soon there will come a time when I will never come across anything that would contradict the ways in which I already think, something that could change my perspective in any way.
What is true of questions concerning my toddler is also true of other, 'grander' questions. And that is why Google (and Facebook and so on) are more insidious than newspapers and magazines. Given their need to cater to a wide variety of audiences, one could still conceivably find in the latter points of view that are not tailored to one, and sometimes one may change one’s mind or enlarge one’s perception.Google caters to the widest audience imaginable, but it is able to personalize individual experience within it. And once you can do it, there is no reason to not do it, and a million profit and productivity oriented reasons to maximize this personalized experience of exposure to information.
For those of us from the pre-Internet world, if we think about our life and how we came to have the opinions we did, it is probable that the people in our world, family and friends, school, books, newspapers, magazines and television all played middling to significant parts. When that variety is tailored specifically for you it becomes restricted, and difference stands out because it is possible to forget how common it is. Contradictory opinions generate hostility when one stops being used to contradiction. If everyone on my Facebook profile is talking about progress and one dissenting individual that I went to school with insists on posting articles that talk about the hollow nature of that progress, it is easy to stay friends with but unfollow that person, usually after a few bitter arguments wherein each may claim, at least once, that ‘everyone else’ feels like them. And the sad part is that both are right: all the other people they see feel a lot like them.
Which brings me to the title of this post. Depending on your geographical location, you see a different map for different places/countries on Google. So, for example, if you look at India’s map from within India, Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India. When you look at Google maps in China, the territory is part of China. When I look at it from Australia (and presumably from other neutral territories) I see dotted lines, indicating that these areas are under dispute, that these are fluid spaces, unlike the clean lines and clear demarcations of these neutral territories. In what seems particularly poignant to me, the reason for doing this is not even ideological; it is logistical (You can read about it here). It is a way of complying with the messiness that arises when different countries have different laws and have not caught up with the transnationally efficient standards of multinational companies. The many maps of Google invoke the possibility of plentitude - if we had as many maps as we had imaginations! - but subvert it by limiting them to national narratives rather than notional ones.
Which brings me to my final point. The main argument that I wish to make is not that it is because of technological advancements that we live in a world where reality is constructed rather than objective. Instead, this is an example from our day and age, that is all. We have always lived in created and negotiated worlds, and no reality has ever existed on its own 'out there'. This does not mean giving up on realities though. It is precisely because realities are constructed that it becomes important to fight for those realities that we believe in.