• James Fan & Laurence Shao

The world you perceive depends on Google

In an ideal world, searching for “cats” on Google would simply deliver cute cat pictures. Google would simply deliver your information and would not collect data about you; words such as “trackers” and “cookies” would not exist. The resulting anonymity would mean your personal information stayed personal. However, we live in the real world, not the ideal one, which means whenever you search for “cats,” Google takes your location, your device information, your voice recordings, and the most controversial pages and bundles them into its algorithm to determine what you see on a search page. Google makes its money by spying on your behavior. It manipulates you by showing you what it thinks you want to see. Your search can produce totally different results from mine. Google collects gigabytes of data during the search. After the search, cat litter box ads will clutter your screens forever. This same process is being repeated every time you search online. Of course, you can ask these search engines to not collect your data, but that’s like pouring salt on fire. It might take out some of the embers, but overall, it’s completely useless.

Let's take a step back to look at the whole process. Be aware of the rankings of different sites on the result page. What are the factors that fluctuate them? Well, Google gave a lovely name to its sorting algorithm in 2013: “Hummingbird.” From our understanding, this algorithm is a system that consists of many sorting determinants, just like a house serves as a machine for living, containing kitchens and bedrooms that serve this overall purpose. Three components in “Hummingbird” are worth mentioning: links, contents, and RankBrain. The first two parts are explicitly explained by Google. “Links” refers to ranking based on the number of times that your website pages are mentioned in websites created by others. “Contents,” while more vague in its actual mechanism, evaluates a website by the length of its content, the resolution of embedded photos, and other factors that reasonably reflect the overall quality of the website. Yet Google stays tight-lipped about RankBrain, which seems to be the weightiest component in the ranking system. With more than 100 ranking factors included, this black-box algorithm continues to manipulate users’ searching results in an unknown way.

This pandemic of data collection is poisoning the news industry. Objective opinions are as rare as purple carrots. CNN, Fox, the NYT, and the Washington Post all make truckloads of money by fostering outrage in people’s minds. These people then share it on social platforms, where Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/TikTok’s biased algorithm recommends it to more users. They also get angry, and eventually, the resulting article or video is shared so many times the original event is lost in the mix.

Of course, it is also important to acknowledge that without data collection, digital life would be incredibly difficult. It’s nice to read articles about trains and then have similar articles recommended. Crucially, the feelings change when the data is being delivered point-blank back to you. Apple introduced a new privacy feature in iOS 13 that shows how many times apps have been tracking you throughout a certain period of time. This notification is scary — one announced that an app had tracked me 1,078 times. Not only does tracking destroy your battery as it requires your phone to do extra work, but it reveals a new, scary possibility: if this data gets into the wrong hands (which is highly likely because it was unencrypted), that person would have a detailed log of where each user went, what they paid, and even personal preferences in life.

Data collection is drowning everyone into a pseudo Dark Web, where many people have shared horror stories of seeing their pictures for sale. In a time where even your refrigerator has WiFi, that could happen on a regular basis sooner rather than later.


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