The Ethics of Search: Can an algorithm have normative value?

Googling “9/11 Truth” gets a lot of… questionable, if non-canonical, information about the Sept. 11 attacks. A woman looking up information about a company she wanted to sue found a law professor’s final that was based on a previous case of the company with some modifications (the untrue kind) to the facts for the purposes of the final. Finding lots of facts is not the same as finding truth. Prof. Henry Jones, Jr. once told his class, “Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is just down the hall.” I’m interested in fact, truth, and the relationship between the two. Despite the distinction between fact and truth, our interactions with facts lead us to either come to truth or falsehood. Although searches can only find information, data, and facts, we can make no better a conclusion than the information upon which is it based.

This illuminates a broader issue: Can any Technology have an ethical or moral status? It is well noted that that an object does nothing but what someone does with it. Yet technology is designed with a user and a use in mind. Patches and software updates are familiar to us because the designer is looking to improve the relationship between the technology and the user. While it is true that people may misuse any object, I am not persuaded that an analogy exists between the scenarios of someone using a medical tool (designed to heal) for murder and a search engine (designed to find data) leading people to questionable-at-best material first and foremost. The first represents a deliberate misues of a tool. The second represents a proper use of a tool that has failed to perform its function properly.

The issue doesn’t rest here, of course, because someone must judge which material ought to be found first, or how the engine ought to drive someone to arrive at certain material. Perhaps the issue is best framed as the impossibility of objectivity when any outcome can be manipulated and tailored to. If Google is to attempt pure, cold, disinterested objectivity, its methods and algorithms can be abused and exploited. To avoid those results, Google’s only option might be to become interested in both the method and the outcome of search results. Neither scenario is wholly satisfying.


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