83Google Gone Wild: The Digital Threat to Reputation
Google Gone Wild
Justice is blind, but search engines are
blind, deaf, and dumb.
—FOLK ADAGE ADAPTED TO FIT MODERN REALITY
Almost all popular websites are automated. They are run by com-
puter software that does not need human intervention for most ac-
tions. A bank’s website uses a computer program that automatically
tells you how much money is in your account without a bank em-
ployee ever lifting a finger. An e-commerce website uses a computer
program to tell you what items are in stock and to process your pay-
ment without the need for a cashier to do anything. And a search en-
gine—like Google or Microsoft Bing—uses a computer program to
figure out what websites to return for your search query without a
human editor reviewing the results.
The system usually works because computers are incredibly
smart. When properly programmed, computers can perform literally
billions of calculations in a second. Computers can store more in-
formation on a disk the size of a deck of cards than could ever fit in
books in a public library. And computers can perform the most bor-
ing tasks day in and day out without ever tiring or needing a break.
But the system sometimes fails because computers are also in-
credibly dumb. Computers do exactly what they are told to do, no
more and no less. Computers do not ask whether their instructions
make sense. Computers do not consider other ways to perform the
same task. A computer has no empathy or emotions, nor any sense of
fairness or justice. If a computer is programmed to return the most
popular links in response to a search, then it will return the most
popular links even if they are obviously wrong, unfair, or harmful.
And computers interpret absolutely everything completely literally;
the fictional “Johnny 5” of the movie Short Circuit is perhaps the only
computer in history that “got” a joke.