Digitizing Truth

1979 Alma College Professor of Religion, Dr. Ron Massanari teaches class outside – from the Alma College archives.

My first year of college, I took the obligatory Introduction to Western Thought class at 8:00am Tuesdays and Thursdays. This class taught me a couple things: I hate morning classes and I don’t know much about anything. In some ways, Dr. Massanari’s class fundamentally changed the ways I think about truth and knowledge. I think he’d be happy to know that I walked away from his class questioning how we “know” things. His course encouraged my interest in language and how language constructs the way we view the world. Through him, I found Foucault.

So, when The Atlantic published Friedersdorf’s “Should Google Always Tell the Truth?” I was perplexed. The article doesn’t quite hit the mark. Friedersdorf asks, “When should it [a search engine] direct searchers as neutrally as possible to the Web pages that they’re seeking?” While this question is interesting, I don’t think it’s the most relevant. A better question might be, “How does Google determine what is neutral information?” or “Who determines what is true?”  These questions have real consequences for how we prosume information online.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, sites like Wikipedia that are collaboratively written, edited, and cross-checked still have issues with truth and neutrality. In particular, the voices of women are unrepresented on Wikipedia and other collaborative writing spaces. In other words, truth is always situated in culture. We should be concerned that search engines like Google have so much power over how we know things.

Or, as Dr. Massanari might say, “Clarify and define the basic assumptional claims of Google.”

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