What Do We Expect from the Internet and Why Do We Expect that?

Thinking about how information is aggregated and shared online is a must, both as digital consumers and as technical communicators. But how do we make sense of it all?

We start by listening to Zittrain’s presentation. As he spoke on the “Is The Internet Taking Us Where We Want to Go?” panel, there were definitely a lot of interesting ideas spoken. The one that I want to talk about at length is the idea of Google and other Search Engines as “information fiduciaries.”

By using the examples of searching for information about vaccines and Jew, he starts to develop ideas about how we use Google and how it should be formatted at the back end in order to act in a more responsible and sanitized way. Now, when he talks about the search algorithms and the reality of Facebook programmers having the power to influence events and attention by manipulating the way the News Feeds shares and loads information, there are definite causes for concern.

We know that there are people creating and managing the content and websites we traffic on a daily basis. As technical communicators, it may be in some of our job descriptions to act as the information gatekeepers and analytic experts. Even our work on the blog represents this fact when we get down to bare bones. Our job is to use our assigned readings and real life experiences to craft content and drive attention to this site.  But how much of a look behind the curtain do we need to have or be aware of in order to be truly effective as technical professions and savvy as consumers? The answer is…to be determined. Zattrain uses examples such as mugshot.com and Amazon sellers to talk about how information is not just manipulated by the technology we use to access it, but also affected and altered by the consumers as they access it and use it for their own needs.

Image result for analytic algorithms

Source: (http://openclassroom.stanford.edu/MainFolder/CoursePage.php?course=IntroToAlgorithms)

But he continues to talk about search engines and our thinking when we interact with them. “Are they just tools or are they our friends as well? In my mind, the idea of Google as a friend is ridiculous. It seems to just be another way to remove the impetus of the user and place all of the blame on the technology that exists.

The idea of “being mad at Google” as Zittrain posits seem like a useless endeavor to me. Google is not Siri. It is not Cortana. It is a method for us to learn information and get our questions answered. To demand, or even suggest that Google constantly alter its coding to be more sensitive to potential audiences and potential searches would hamstring the service and all of us who use the service.

It is up to us as users to learn how to navigate the digital arena we live in now. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. We should not be willing to give up the autonomy of a “clean” interface for the idea of a more politically correct atmosphere. Even if that were something a majority of users or providers could agree upon, when so many users dependent on Google for answers, someone is bound to be offended unless we act like other countries and give the government control over which sites we can visit.

In my work, I do not work directly with websites or search engines, but I do use them as a source when I perform my research. It is my job to weed through the articles, pages, and offerings of sites like Google and other search engines in order to produce the best-researched product for my supervisors and my audience. If I felt in any way limited in my choices, however much I may already be unconsciously, I would have a hard time depending on the service to meet my needs in the future.

Image result for manipulating content

Source: (http://www.giantfreakinrobot.com/sci/facebook-scientists-experimented-users-manipulating-content.html)

In terms of talking about learning, I definitely agree with his closing point about the change in thinking that needs to occur among academics. If you read my previous post, you can tell that I have had a bit of a mixed bag relationship with educational institutions. I know that there is still a place for professors and other experts to instruct students; I decided to enter this program because I know that there are things I don’t know and find interacting with other professionals and technical communicators as we learn skills, competencies, and how to frame the questions and perform the research to delve into the topics of social media, rhetorical theory, and project management. There does have to be the realization that expertise in a field is a lot harder now than in the past.

The information we all have access to does not make us PhDs, but it does put the onus on the educators to continue pushing themselves in their fields, ask questions, poll professionals, and yes be open to the idea that a student twenty years younger than them can be an authority they should listen to.

Overall, there were a lot of ideas working in the presentation. A lot of which connect to what we are doing in this class and in the workforce as technical communicators. In your opinion, should we expect Google and other search engines, like Bing, Yahoo, and DogPile (does anyone else remember this), to be more conscious of what the algorithm is spitting out? Or should it provide us with the raw output and leave the decision making process up to us?

Posted on November 6, 2016, in Digital, Metablogging, Social Media, Society, Teaching, Technology, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You raise an interesting question about the raw output. Why should we settle for the results a search engine gives us? FYI for some additional info on the linking economy, see http://jilltxt.net/txt/linksandpower.html

    Has technology made our lives too simple and convenient? There’s less tech literacy that needs to be taught, perhaps, but it still should be taught, right? That’s how we move into critical thinking and active users rather than passive consumers. Unless you’re speaking specifically to what should be available to tech comm audiences?

    On the other hand, as a program director, I should be able to rely on university web tools powered by Oracle among other major companies, but I can’t. I have to drill down every student’s academic and transfer reports to make sure courses are satisfying the correct requirements. And that’s ridiculous. Maybe that’s helped me manage my time better and become even more of a fastidious proofreader than ever, but I know I’d prefer it be simpler!

    • That is an interesting point. How much easier is it? On the most basic level, we seem to have traded in speed for quality. But when the speed technology and search engines provide us is impeded by our need to scrutinize and double check everything, how much have we gained?

      I do not think technology has made things too simple. It has given us new methods to deal with the same situations. Now in terms of dealing with a spreadsheet or data set from thirty years ago, it may be easier to sort the information and find correlations with Excel or Project. The challenge comes in choosing which among the variety of digital and analytic tools to use. Do you use the one you’re most familiar with? Or all of them to get as complete a picture of possible, Technology has offered us “an embarrassment of riches: which comes with its own set of problems past generations did not have to deal with.

      Tech literacy definitely still needs to be taught. It reminds me of an experience I had in high school. I was in AP Spanish with a class full of native speakers. Everyone blew me out of the water when it came to the oral exams. But I found myself pulling ahead in terms of grammar and structure. The other students had spent their whole lives with the language so did not need the time I had to take to learn all of the background and rules.

      That’s the way it has become and will keep going with technology. Future generations will be reared in the cradle of technology we haven’t even dreamed of, but living so closely with something also blinds you to some of the intricacies and ways of thinking about it.

  2. Your post reminds me of the Rheingold reading earlier and his lesson of the “crap detector.” You similarly suggest that the onus of determining what is trustworthy and reliable information is the responsibility of the reader and not of the producer (or the search engine).

    As you and Rheingold suggest, a healthy skepticism is just one skill in tech literacy that we need to be teaching. I guess I wonder at a practical level what this type of teaching looks like and how much of it is just naturally picked up by digital natives. My sister is a fourth grade teacher, and on one hand, her students are much more fluent on an iPad than I am. On the other hand, I have no idea how she could effectively teach digital literacy with all the complexities of networking, navigation, finding reliable information, etc. I saw this interesting Education World article (http://www.educationworld.com/a_tech/tech078.shtml) about teaching search engine skills to kids as young as kindergarten. That seems slightly shocking to me, until I consider that these kids were likely playing on their parents’ smartphones since they were two years old.

    If we’re putting the responsibility of discerning quality websites on the consumer, we need to have a way to teach how to do it well and guide the kids who leap in early and might not develop the right habits.

    • That is definitely a fascinating article, I do think that in the beginning, that will be one of the solutions we will have to implement across the board when it comes to teaching people how to search. I’m not sure how effective it will be at a young age however. I come back to the idea that as much structure and ground has been set down by people who have come before, teaching such an evolving topic at an age when teachers are ultimate authorities may limit experimentation and exploration.

      Like we had to learn, it’s not about teaching to a test or to a rubric, we have to eventually learn how to reason and puzzle things out for ourselves. When that happens, we can begin playing with the tools given to us by authority figures and others. Until then, we’re just learning how to regurgitate rather than create.

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