Google tailors the results of your searches to suit what it thinks you want to find. That sounds quite benign and helpful, doesn't it? Sometimes, it is helpful. But I don't want Google - a mindless machine - to filter information. I know better than Google what I'm interested in. And sometimes, I might be looking not for what I want to find but for what someone else would find.
The Google bias came into sharp focus the other day when I was doing some research for a new novel. On my laptop, a Google images search for 'Borromeo' came up with just the right thing - lots of images of a sixteenth-century cardinal. I wanted to print one to stick in my workbook for the novel, but the colour printer isn't wifi'd to the Mac, so I did the same search on the PC, logged in as Small Bint.
So Google knows I like dead cardinals and Small Bint likes fashion. This seems harmless, if irritating. But now I'm worried. What if there is a porn star or a serial killer called Borromeo? I won't see his image when searching for Borromeo. Small Bint won't - she'll see fashion models. Now posit a reader of this novel-in-progress. And let's suppose the reader shares a computer with a family member who likes looking at porn sites or real crime sites. When they search for more info about the character, they see the porn star or the vicious killer.
Google's tailored search results make it hard to check that things are safe. I've always Googled the names of principal characters, just in case. But now Google is so careful not to show me what it thinks I don't want to see, who knows what other people will find?
Of course, it's possible to search not logged in as anyone, or go to the library and search on a different computer. But I don't like the idea that the information has been filtered like this. And I don't like having to remember that Google's top results might not overlap with what someone completely different would see.
If I were to come over all philosophical, I'd say it was quite profound - do I see blue like you see blue? Do things I don't know about exist? Nice as the philosophical pondering is, when you just want to know if a character is a cardinal, a model or a porn star, it's not much use.