Google Q&A and the Limits of Knowledge

There has been much attention paid to Google’s newest feature Google Q&A. Google Q&A (Google’s response to features already provided by Yahoo & Ask Jeeves) delivers factual answers for some queries at the top of its results page, to save users from having to navigate over to other sites and look for the information. For example, if a user enters the query ‘Portugal population,’ Google returns the answer — 10.5 million — along with a link to the Web page where the information came from.

Of course, there are limits to Google’s ability to provide the “correct answer”. A search for “what is the tallest mountain” provides the answer: “Hawksbill Mountain… is the tallest mountain in Shenandoah National Park.” Perhaps my search query wasn’t precise enough, but anyone asking such a general question is likely thinking of the tallest mountain the the world – how Google decided to refer to a Wikipedia article about Shenanhoah National Park for its answer remains a mystery.

This leads to the concern about Google’s role (or search engines in general) as a source for knowledge. The Internet, of course, as a network of computers to share resources. As the WWW emerged, file and document sharing became the main purpose for the Web. The medium also shifted into a communication technology, facilitating chat rooms, e-mail, discussion lists, etc. And now, it seems, the Internet has become our latest “knoweldge tool” – replacing encyclopedias and libraries as the place we go to have questions answered, to gain knowledge.

Another vital question is what levels of oversight are in place to ensure that other answers are indeed accurate? How does Goole ensure there is no bias or misinformation in the results they provide? Also, how does it determine which sites are authoritative in this manner? Is this relevance automated, or are Google employees entering in sites that they see as authoritative on the matter. For that matter, what is their criteria for deeming a site accurate?

For exmaple, the search “where is Palestine” provides the answer “Location: Israel, West Bank” Does this answer make it seem Palestine is a part of Israel? That it exists within Israel? A possession of Israel? Clearly, the Palestine-Israel relationship is highly disputed. From whose point of view, then, is this answer given? Of course, the referring site is provided, so a diligent user can decide to search and see how reliable the source is. But the whole point of Google Q&A is, it seems, to encourage users to just take Google’s answer as fact, and not dig any further.

The timing of this new feature fits nicely with a new version of my dissertation proposal I have been working on this week. This latest approach focuses on the roles of search engines as discourse networks, framing the limits of knoweldge. Here’s the key paragraph (it’s still very much a work in progress):

This project will situate the prevailing contemporary information interfaces – web search engines – as technologies of power and formations of regimes of truth. Building from a historical survey of the role encyclopedias played in the control of knowledge in early modern Europe, this project will provide a material understanding of search engines and their role in determining the framework and the boundaries within which information is presented and knowledge is attained. It will complicate the view of search engines as free and egalitarian gatekeepers of information, and reveal how the design of these contemporary discourse networks shape the information they aim to present and set the limits of knowledge.

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