Truth is not made by consensus

Julián de Cabo. Professor. IE Business School

27 October 2006

Yahoo and Google open the doors into the greatest library of our time. But beware- these search engines do not hold the key to the ultimate truth but rather respond to what the majority believes.

Anyone who knows anything about the Internet world knows how to throw around the word ‘search engine’ comfortably in conversation. Those who claim a little more knowledge about cyberspace communications are able to understand how Google’s development is vital to the Net and why talking about Yahoo is now passé. Some of the pioneers in the use of the Spanish-speaking Net can still remember the battles fought between the long forgotten Óle and Ozú.

Ever since the Internet became the greatest resource library in history, the system with which we locate information on the Net has been a continual object of study, not only in the business and technological world but also, as illustrated in this article, from the philosophical point of view. I hope that the introduction to this article has not scared off any readers but rather has awakened their interest.

Let’s try to simplify the operations of search engines with the following statement: Today´s search engines use a concept called ´relevance´ to give priority to certain results over others. This in technical terms is not exactly correct, but it helps clarify the problem. If a reader prefers to look at it from another angle, we could also say the stronger the connection (or the more links) a specific page has with the key word, the more possibilities this page has in being at the top of the list in the search results.

It is interesting the connection that a search engine makes. If a lot of people say that Internet page X is very relevant to subject Y then page X should be at the top of search results when a user looks for information on subject Y.

But what has happened since search engines began classifying information in this way is no less interesting. It has even given rise to it own specific terminology ‘google –bombing’ since Google was the first to experience ‘bombing’ due to being the pioneers in classifying information through ‘relevance’. Google-bombing is a term used to define what organized interest groups do when they create links between pages with the aim of uniting specific search terms and paving the way for their pages to appear at the top of certain search results.

If you have a couple of minutes, and access to the Internet, you can have fun experimenting with this first hand. Try typing in words miserable failure and you will see that the first search result is that of the President of the United States’ official biography. If this example isn’t enough to convince you, try another classic and type in the word ladrones (thieves in Spanish) and you will see that the first search result is that of SGAE (the General Association of Authors and Publishers of Spain). These are just two of the funnier examples of Google-bombing, but rest assured there are quite a few others that are not quite as amusing.

These two examples underscore the fact that the interest groups mentioned earlier have found an excellent weapon for sullying the image of what they reject. And that would be fine as an anecdote and could give rise to interesting debate over whether it is acceptable for a search engine to actively ´rectify´ a result it knows is the product of an organised campaign. However, there is more to this question than meets the eye. Let’s take a closer look.

We have used two examples of subjects whose popularity is pretty dubious and therefore we have found humorous. But what happens when we take this a step further to where interest groups are capable of deliberately misleading readers in an effort to better serve their causes. Then Google-bombing no longer makes us smile but rather raises concern because it can become totalitarian and should provoke rejection. Once any one group begins disfiguring the truth, it does not matter against whom or what the act is aimed; it is a reprehensible. I am aware that the use of realism to produce shock is the resource of a bad actor, but I cannot help but remember Goebbels, who turned so much evil into truth. Nor can I forget the damage it caused during a period of European history.

But so as not to leave the reader with a bad taste in his mouth, we will finish this article on a more upbeat note by highlighting other points of interest in the world of search engines, which when stated in musical terms are of concern but ‘ma non troppo’.

First of all, the next time you use a search engine, remember that the results it provides are not necessarily the truth or, at least, not the truth in the philosophical sense of the word. As we learned at school, truth ´is what is´. And what the search engine responds to is ´the opinion of the majority´. However, it is important to remember that just because the majority of people decide that the force of gravity does not exist, it doesn’t mean gravity will stop pulling us down. Truth is not made by consensus.

And, to close, we should also remember that although it is true that one of the marvels of the Net is that ´it contains all human knowledge´, it is also true that the knowledge it contains is by no means certified. We must always remember that truth and untruth coexist on the Internet in equal parts. And once we are aware of this, we cannot expect search engines to do what is every good man’s obligation: to search for truth itself.

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