Column A friend recently texted me in a panic from Florida, where he’d been consoling relatives following a death in the family. Those relatives had returned a positive COVID-19 test, then a negative test. My friend was exposed to them, so got his own test. It came back negative. His relatives were tested again. Negative.
What should he do, he asked me?
Well, I helpfully suggested, why don’t you Google the accuracy of the bog-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test you’ve just had? That’ll give you some error bars and allow you to manage your risks.
Oh, he replied. I tried that.
I had no idea what he meant by this, so I typed the following into a search box: “WHO PCR COVID test accuracy”...
...and got back a tsunami of conspiracy and antivax propaganda.
I suddenly understood why my friend had reached out to me - halfway around the world - rather than trying to find the answer on his own.
My friend had stumbled into a data void, a phenomenon noted by social media researcher Danah Boyd who explored areas on the internet where there should be strong, factually based content. Data voids are spaces that have instead been crowded out by insanity, propaganda - and outright recruiting for various radical causes. They're one reason for, and one path towards, organised and violent extremists.
Built to last: Time to dispose of the disposable, unrepairable brickMORE MARK PESCE
That a data void exists on a topic as important as the accuracy of PCR tests highlights the weakness of algorithmic approaches to indexing the Web, something we’ve been doing in one form or another since DEC launched AltaVista twenty-six years ago.
When search engines came along we assumed machines could index the web.
It’s now clear that human curation has a bigger role, separating the chaff (and the spam) from the grain.
Slow, expensive and dependent on humans, curation breaks business models that print money by consigning the hard bits of running web businesses to automation.
Yet automation clearly does the job incompletely, and at worst - as we can see with my search results – can amplify dangerous misinformation.
Which is why Google’s threat to pull search from Australia in the face of laws that force it to share profits rings increasingly hollow.
Yes, Bing, DuckDuckGo and others would simply fill the vacuum left by Google. A lack of Google can serve a greater purpose because making the Internet harder to use could be exactly what we need.
If information lies beyond the range of a search engine, we can’t find it.
For a generation we’ve been able to type anything we like into an empty white box and find something that felt like the answer to our needs. Over time we've assumed it may also be the truth. Or truthful enough.
Yet the complete lack of transparency between typing a search request and receiving results (Google’s deepest secrets) has also become its - and our - greatest weakness. Our ability to find things has atrophied precisely because all the work had been automated.
Now, when we need to find something of vital importance, we can’t. If it somehow lies beyond the range of a search engine, we can’t find it.
Google can’t write an algorithm to fix that; it can only curate its way towards knowledge.
That was the founding principle of Yahoo! which started life as a curated index of everything on the web. The web’s explosive growth made it more and more difficult to operate or use a curated index; that’s when search took over. Ever since, everything we’ve done on the web has been centered on a blind spot that might, at last, be too big to ignore.
If Australians switched en masse from Google to Baidu, they might find themselves learning a different version of Chinese history in which the Tiananmen Square massacre did not happen.
Data voids are spaces that have been crowded out by insanity and propaganda
That sort of blind spot we can see coming because China tells us what it doesn't want us to know.
It’s harder to anticipate blind spots that only become apparent in moments of greatest need. And in those moments it may be too late to do anything but try to quickly recover those long-abandoned skills for finding important information.
No one wants Google to pull the plug on Search in Australia, or elsewhere. Yet it could present a fantastic opportunity: a chance to learn, again, what it means to dig for information. We would value that information, because of the time we invested in finding it.
In an era of information overload - and stripped of the blinders of an empty white box hiding all that complexity - we get to decide what’s valuable. We’ll spend time searching it out, verifying it, curating it, and then - we’ll share it with our peers, our children, and our nation. It’ll be slow. But it won’t be wrong. And it won’t leave us blinded by the simplicity of a white box. ®