Is Google Promoting Tribalism?

It is well known (or at least it should be) that Google’s algorithm for search provides results that are based, in part, on the information of prior searches. My understanding is this leads to similar people receiving similar search results and different people receiving different results as it relates to the same inquiry.

I first learned of this during the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. It was reported that a search of BP from a computer with prior searches of environmental matters would provide pages of listings associated with the Deepwater matter, oil spills, pollution, and activist information. Meanwhile, the same inquiry of BP from a computer that had a history of searching stock quotes, investments, and business, would receive pages about BP corporate matters and the Deepwater situation was relegated pages deep.

This concerns me on several levels. First, it leads to an unconscious concentration of similar opinions. Likeness, familiarity, and similarity are all vastly important as it relates to our social connectedness. And people are highly social. However, we have learned from past experiences that limiting our worldview by reinforcing our current positions leads to hardening of positions, inflexibility, and intolerance of opposing viewpoints.

Diversity in our natural environment promotes the general welfare of all inhabitants. Destroy the mountain lion’s habitat and the deer population swells. The weak, the old, and the sick thrive and survive longer than they would naturally in a balanced environment leading to increased disease that could lead herds of deer to be wiped out, not by predators, but by weakness. Additionally, the swelling numbers outstrip the natural vegetation’s ability to grow and food supplies are reduced leading to either changing migration patterns or starvation. With each cycle of reduced diversity the stresses upon the surviving support systems become greater until a time is reached that a calamity ensues and natural order is restored.

I believe that there is a similarity between the above deer habit example and people. People are naturally tribal in nature. We lived in tribes, clans, and villages for hundreds of generations and large cities and urban environments for less than 10 generations. Our DNA is hardwired for tribal mentality. (As a quick note – assuming a 20 average generation span {25 may be a better value – but I will work with 20 for this} that is 5 generations per century. Egypt, the oldest western civilization (at least on record) is about 10,000 years old. That means we are 500 generations removed from early Egyptians. From the early Greek’s, maybe 150 generations. From the fall of Rome, maybe 50 generations. From 1776, maybe 15 generations. My point is that our DNA is way more connected to our pre-industrial age than it is to our post-industrial age and our habits are vastly interconnected to these biological realities).

Google search results could lead to increased polarization as like people’s opinions are sourced from ever specific and concentrated sources. Aristotle once noted that opinions matter. However it was the opinions of the learned that matter more. Who are our learned people whose opinions we should value? Where are these voices?

Our mass media is following the path of Google. We have Fox on the Right with limited liberal perspective. We have MSNBC to the Left with an absence of conservative thinking. We have many with split personalities as it relates to our interwoven options and positions relative to fiscal and social policies.

Congress and the Executive Branch mirror and more likely extend these polarization and myopic positions as our winner takes all with a minimal majority and swelling support from fans while viciously verbally attacked from their detractors. Where is the civility? Where are the candid conversations about what is best? Where are the policy discussions that include and incorporate our distinct and varying positions? It should not be a winner takes all mentality.

I have met Presidents, Cabinet Members, and Congressional Leaders. I may not agree with all of their individual positions but there is common ground. A conversation about WE over ME is always appropriate. What is lacking today is the courage to reach across the proverbial isle to find our common interests. To find solid ground for one tribe to connect surrounding tribes. To recognize that we all have inherent biases and our maturity is based upon our ability to understand that and to leverage our sameness for the benefit of all.

Extreme positions are easily argued. They are based upon an ideology that in its abstract is generally appealing and logical. These ideologies, whether religious, political, or economic all lend themselves to binary answers. Yet the world is complex. Our environments are complex. Our opinions are complex. Yet our ideologies are too frequently binary.

Google is extremely useful and valuable. Google (along with Yahoo and other search engines) provides a wealth of information. Their algorithm capabilities are complex and highly useful. We, it users, merely need to remember that our search results are predicated on predictive behaviors, biases, and prior searches and we should be cognizant of the subtle implications of such results and seek ways to minimize our polarization tendencies.