For having edited both Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maxwell Perkins became an iconic figure, the top representative of the art of editorial judgment. Indeed, a biography of Perkins by A. Scott Berg bore the subtitle Editor of Genius. In some circles the notion of editorial genius, or even editorial judgment, is dismissed as hogwash or perhaps an atavism of the print era. In others it is revered, whether the editor in question serves as a gatekeeper to novelists at HarperCollins or Penguin Random House or sits atop a leading STM journal. What is clear is that we still have gatekeepers regardless of the form of publishing. Increasingly these gatekeepers have a decidedly post-human aspect, as though Perkins had been downloaded into the shell of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his leading role in The Terminator.
Of course, no one called it gatekeeping when Google announced recently that they were giving higher search-engine ranking to sites that use encryption. This is a somewhat technical matter with very large marketing implications. The editors–yes, the editors–of the Wall Street Journal did a nice job explaining this to us carbon-based life forms. If you are responsible for a Web site and all that entails–increasing traffic, identifying the optimal demographic group, having site visitors take desired actions–then what Google thinks is important is important to you. What Web manager can afford a downgrade from Google for whatever reason? Thus Google is using its leverage, its extraordinary ability to bring traffic to a site, to influence the engineering of Web sites everywhere.
Now, as The New Yorker would say, how’s that again? One would have thought, one would claim to have been told, that Google’s rankings concern relevance. That is a human measure; Perkins was in the business of making that kind of judgment. But it’s not human measurement that Google is after. Google is expressing a bias (though it’s a stretch to call it an editorial bias) for a machine preference. This is a hard one for a humanist, or even a human, to swallow, but deal with it: we are well along the path from organic to cyborg to the purely cybernetic. Our role as humans is to serve as the hosts for the devices we use and carry with us.
The big tech companies are always being accused of bias, of course, though usually critics are thinking of bias of the old kind, as when William Randolph Hearst deployed the mass medium of his time to impose his political and moral vision on the world. (Hmmm. Didn’t Jeff Bezos recently purchase The Washington Post?) Some observers claim that Google’s search results are biased in favor of other Google services; see, for example, the attacks by the CEO of Yelp on Google’s “evil” practices. In the book world Amazon does not hide the fact that preferred results from searching its site can be purchased through cooperative advertising. Looking for a thriller based in St. Petersburg? Amazon will find one for you: it’s the one for which the publisher paid for placement.
It’s tempting to take sides in these matters, though I am myself resisting this (one) particular temptation. My objection to what Google does is not that they have biases but that they pretend that they don’t. Higher ranking for encryption? Why, yes: encryption is a good thing. Higher ranking for faster-loading sites? But of course: fast downloads are a good thing. What advocates of these practices don’t quite see is that this is a technological version of Soviet realism. We should have happy workers; we should rate all movies in which anyone smokes a cigarette as NC-17 (I actually heard someone propose this); and if we have an article that is wholly unoriginal, it goes to the top of the list–because it is encrypted and loads fast. It’s bad enough that we have communications that are required to be politically correct, but now they also have to be technologically correct. But don’t forget: we are doing this because it is good for you.
At the top of the list, though–ranked far higher than load time or encryption or just about anything else–is the greatest bias of all, that in favor of free and open content. Users of Google Book Search and Google Scholar may be forgiven for not being aware that the core service, Google Web Search (that is, the service that people mean when they say “Google”), only finds things where access is unimpeded. Relevance? Quality? Importance? These “human” values are nothing in comparison to the importance of the open field for Web spiders. The spiders then tell us what is important, inducing more and more creators of content, however reluctantly, to forego the business model that they prefer and that supports their editorial efforts.
What is disturbing about all this is that it is generally not appreciated that Google is making cultural decisions in the name of technological elegance. I doubt Google understands it either or if they do understand it, they don’t see why it is important. How can anything worthwhile be more important than the speed of the Internet, the handshake between two machines on opposite sides of the planet? Alas, we only have John Connor to protect us. Spoiler alert: we know how this movie ends.