Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Googling Fame: Who's In Charge?

First, I will heed the proverbial warning not to bite the hand that feeds you, or in this case, the company that provides my blog free of charge. Google, that huge, somewhat mysterious entity run by a couple of thirty-somethings who are (I read recently) two of the most admired people in America, said they would let me blog here for free, and would provide easy-to-use facilities for setting up my blog and running it. Almost without exception, they have kept their word, whoever they are. I don't have to have ads on my blog unless I choose to, the system is as easy to use as they said, and in sum, my limited experience with the organization has been almost uniformly positive. And to make things even better, after nearly a year of blogging here, I find that if you type "engineering ethics blog" into Google's search engine, the first thing that comes up is this blog. Not only that, but among the next few results are references to this blog at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign and Illinois Institute of Technology. (If you type just "engineering ethics," it shows up too, but not till the fourth page.)

Now before I start preening in public, I should let you know that I have friends at UIUC and IIT, and I'm almost certain that these friends are the reasons for the references to my blog at those institutions, not the fact that Google points here. But why would you or I or anybody else care about the fact that something you write shows up on Google's search engine?

The answer is obvious to anyone who is at all familiar with the way search engines work these days. In contrast to the early days five years or so ago, when a query for "dog houses" would turn up everything from frankfurters to Manhattan real estate, search engines today use techniques that not only turn up the most relevant results first, but also rank them according to popularity. Popularity is easily measured by the frequency with which people go to certain sites referred to by the search engine, and possibly by other means of which the non-computer scientist writing this blog is ignorant. (It's amazing—and sometimes a little frightening—what people can know about your web habits with the right software.)

In the nature of things, with the billions of interactions Google handles each minute, the vast majority of what it does must be automated, in the sense that no human being is directly aware of or dealing with the activity. Somewhere on top of all the software is a cadre of superintendents who set policy for the system, but surely can't deal with it down on the level of individual rankings of individual search items, unless there is some kind of crisis or legal problem that requires manual intervention.

In the pre-web days, the closest analogy I can think of to this kind of thing is newspaper and magazine columns. Back then, real money had to be involved, either as payment from a publisher or as a self-publishing venture, before a person could set himself up to give advice in print to the public. This was a large barrier, but it also spared the public (at least in non-Communist countries) from stuff that nobody wanted to read. (I make an exception for Communist countries, because if for example Kim Jong-Il wishes to enlighten his citizens with a five-page editorial or a three-hour TV speech, nobody can stop him.) The keeper of these barriers were editors, people who had some judgment about what might attract readers and what ought to be put before the public.

Things are different now, sort of. Take for example a blog that you locate through Google's search engine. Instead of a newspaper editor who judiciously (or sometimes injudiciously) places before your breakfast ham and eggs a carefully selected column, in searching for a blog on a given subject you turn the task of discrimination over to whoever—or whatever—at Google decides how things are ranked in a search. Because Google is not (and probably couldn't be) totally forthcoming about how they do this, or who is responsible, you just have to take what you get. Of course you don't have to be satisfied with it if you don't like it, and it's not like you've paid anything (although you will be exposed to ads somewhere along the way—Google has to pay the bills somehow). But at least in principle, if you disagreed with an editor's choice of column, or choice of words in an editorial, you could write a letter to the editor in the time-honored way, and maybe he would print it. If you don't like what a search engine does, especially if it's Google, I'm not sure what recourse you could find, other than hiring a lawyer. And that is so trite nowadays.

How is this related to engineering ethics? I'm simply pointing out that engineers (software engineers, yes, but they like to be called engineers too) have created a new mass medium with fundamentally different rules. Communications technologies frequently get a free ride in engineering ethics courses because of the idea that communication between people is the responsibility of the people, not the medium. That is true up to a point. But when a technical medium is used by millions of people every day and exerts a powerful influence on what they read and how they view the world, the engineers in charge are making ethical choices in the way they design search engines, whether they realize it or not.

In an earlier column (Mar. 30, 2006), I raked Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft over the coals (gently) for bending their rules about freedom of speech to fit the constraints imposed by the Peoples' Republic of China in order to operate there. Clearly, suppressing blogs on freedom and democracy in China is an extreme example of the power of software engineers to manipulate public opinion. And it's very unlikely (although possible) that anything to do with a search engine will result in deaths or injuries, which is generally what it takes for an engineering ethics matter to make headlines. But the power is there, and software engineers at Google and everywhere should give some thought as to how to use it responsibly.

Sources: I thought I could find a reference confirming what I read somewhere about Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin being some of the most admired heroes by people under thirty, but Google has failed me—for once. Or maybe they're just being modest.

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