At my local hackerspace this week, someone reccomended a book. It was written over a century ago, and is in the public domain.
Four of us googled for it. Three of us immediately found it on Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, and Google Books, for free.
The person who actually needed the book — a basic math textbook — had a completely different set of results. Amazon. Half.com. Barnes and Noble. Places you pay.
The three people who found it for free had technical backgrounds.
I assumed we had used different, better search terms; I walked over, put my search terms in their machine… and found Amazon.
At the time I brushed it off, passed them the free links, and moved on.
But it’s been haunting me ever since. I know what the difference was: I have my google search history turned off. Google (in theory) isn’t collecting information about my searches (or at least isn’t using them to refine my search results). I turned search history off very much on purpose. It is on by default.
Someone who doesn’t know to turn that feature off, and who searches like a consumer, will be systemically urged to continue consuming. In this case, it meant that someone who wanted an education and didn’t have one would have had to pay or lose. The hopeful student we helped couldn’t have afforded to pay.
This kind of systemic bias is the most distressing to me because there is no one to blame. No one is at fault. Google tried to provide the results it thought this student wanted; those results reinforced a bias the student already had (“books are expensive”).
We’ve simply built a world where people tend to stay the way they are. If I tend to read militantly liberal news, that’s the news I’ll continue to recieve. If I read angrily conservative blogs, the vast majority of the world will seem to agree with me. Because those things make me comfortable.
This form of bias reinforcement is not a new idea. This particular case was particularly distressing because it came out like this: someone without a math education, who thought of themselves as low on money, would have decided they couldn’t afford to learn math.
Most hackers like to believe that anyone, anyone, can get online and learn to do the kind of work that will get them a job anywhere in the world.
It hurts when I’m forced to see how not-quite-true that is.