The Absent Silence

A year or two ago I was asked to review a novel by José Saramago, and in looking up facts about him on Google I found over and over the same quotation from him —

God is the silence of the universe, and man is the cry that gives meaning to that silence.

It’s from his Lanzarote journals, which aren’t available in English. He quoted it himself last year in one of his own blogs (translated as The Notebook). I wanted it again just a couple of weeks ago for my introduction to the electronic edition of his novels being prepared (hurrah!) by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I wasn’t sure I remembered it exactly, and The Notebook was up in the attic with Charles, and so I went confidently to google it. I thought I knew how it started, so I tried “God is silence.” That got me some hits, but nothing from Saramago. I tried “God is the silence.” That got me the same page as before. So I tried “Saramago quotations” and variants on that. They all took me to a page with lots and lots of quotations from Saramago — singly, in sets of 20, in sets of 43 — but in hurriedly looking through them, I didn’t find the one I was looking for, certainly the most famous single thing Saramago ever wrote. At this point, paranoia raised its stupid little yellow-green head.

Saramago was an atheist, not of the professional Dawkinsian type, but a man to whom the whole God business made no sense, though it interested him. His antipathy was reserved for the profiteers and power-mongers of religion, such as the mufti who authorised marriage for girls of ten, the imam who approved stoning women accused of adultery, the pope who has found it so hard to condemn pederasty among his priests. His speaking out on such matters made him enemies, of course. I mean, the man was a godless commie foreigner. Really. He was.

So I sat there entertaining paranoid thoughts: Had some zealous crusader gone through Google’s material on Saramago and removed the offensive quotation? I knew this kind of thing happens on Wikipedia, but in a wiki people look out for censoring and tampering and can make it unhappen just as promptly. How Google works, I didn’t know, but I knew it’s not a wiki. I didn’t suspect Google of initiating censorship, but wondered if it was vulnerable to sneak-in censorship. A worrisome thought to think about an information service so many of us rely on. So, instead of going on looking for the quotation as I should have done, I wrote a little blog about the mysterious absence of the quotation.

My First Reader read it and said, “But you didn’t try ‘God is the silence of the universe.’”

Oh.

So I asked Google for “God is the silence of the universe“ (and put it in quotes) and there it was, about a ten thousand times, pages and pages of God is the silence of the universe.

So much for paranoia. No crusaders. Just my own (lazy) incompetence at googling.

But the mistake sometimes leads the mind to the place it really wanted to go . . .

By embarrassing myself (and thanks to my First Reader) I began to consider something I’d only very vaguely known and hadn’t given much thought to: the fact that how Google gets and handles its information is an industrial secret.

Understandably. If how Thomas’s get the nooks and crannies into their English muffins is an industrial secret, how Google comes to know everything that is known certainly deserves to be one too.

And yet it is disturbing. (Paranoia?)

I know that people far better equipped to discuss this whole matter have discussed it at length. Undoubtedly I could look up such discussions through Google. At this point I’m not ready to read them. I need to think about it in my own terms first.

Putting it into language familiar to me: it’s as if a great library, say the Library of Congress, refused to tell where they got their books and how they got their books and who chose the books and whether all the books they had were in the catalogue and available or some were held back, kept secret.

Of course there’s no point in libraries doing that. A public library has no industrial secrets, not being in business for the money. A public library is a public trust. And the “trust” in that old-fashioned phrase is, has to be, mutual, reciprocal. The public trusts the library not to censor, change, or withhold valuable books or information, as the library trusts the public won’t force them to censor, change, withhold, or destroy books or information. And if the library, at the request of the public, does withhold some material from some people (as in finding ways to keep exploitive pornography from children using the library) this is done (if it’s rightly done) openly, with knowledge and consent on both sides.

But a great corporation, even one sworn to do no evil, makes no such bargain with the public. There is no reciprocity. Trust is not mutual. It’s understood that the public interest, if considered at all, comes second to the interests of the corporation — profit, growth, and power. So the corporation can and will keep its secrets, even though what it is dealing in is information, even when its business is making knowledge accessible, open, free — the very opposite of keeping secrets.

What a strange, paradoxical situation! It is quite beyond me. I can’t help but wonder if it might also be beyond even the intelligent and competent people who run Google. Do they really know what they are doing? And if they don’t, do they know they don’t — or is that too a secret, kept even from themselves?

— UKL

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Out Here coverUrsula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.

She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.

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The Absent Silence — 8 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t say that we know each and every detail of how google processes the information its spiders crawl, but it is known that google assigns importance to web pages using the PageRank algorithm (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pagerank), first described and patented (http://www.google.com/patents?vid=6285999) twelve years ago.

    What I know nothing of is how google matches words outside of quotation marks, but I’m under the impression that that particular algorithm doesn’t contribute much to google’s success.

  2. What I have noticed with Google, its that for all its might, its results are getting more and more predictable/poor. Every search turns something commercial or a link from wikipedia. So to find more original material I often have to venture to page 3 or 4. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that everyone is supposed to have moved to Facebook these days…

  3. Frostling: The commercial links at the top are actually adds: Google adds will return pay-per-click-links at the top of search results, if your search term is among the ones the customer requested. Just one more demonstration of how Google is NOT a public library. Personally, I always avoid clicking those.

    Reading this blog, I was reminded of an xkcd-strip. According to this, google DID intend to become evil masterminds at the outset – they are just really really bad at it! 🙂

    http://xkcd.com/792/

  4. Actually, there’s a very good reason Google’s search algorithms are secret, and regularly changing (quite aside from being trade secrets): if it was known what made your page appear higher in Google, wealthy companies with lots of programmers and search engine optimization consultants would just game the system and appear at the top of all our search results. Everything would be spam. (And yeah, a lot of this happens anyway, but without secret and ever-evolving algorithms, it would be worse to the point of uselessness.)

    That said, Google should not be a research tool. It is a search tool, and it helps us to track down research material, and it is almost always a first port of call, but nothing that is not transparent should ever be a *last* port of call.

  5. The need for secrecy is unfortunate but real. It’s not simply a matter of protecting the “secret sauce” which makes the engine special (although that’s certainly one major aspect); search is actually an adversarial competition. There are a great many people out there who would dearly love the top result for every single query in the world to be their site advertising cheap generic Viagra, and it’s only by the tireless efforts of a surprisingly large team of experts that such things are kept at bay.

    That said, the fact that (god is silence) didn’t find the result is a bug; a great deal of the work of the search engine goes in to having it able to figure out what you’re looking for even if you don’t know exactly what it is. It needs to be fixed.

    However, I did check and (god is silence saramago) does give good answers. One technique which often works when searching (in any search engine, not just Google) is to adjoin a small number of noun phrases, each of which gives some information about the query.

    (There was originally a great deal more to this response, answering your very salient points about the contradictions inherent in this, but it’s not something I should speak about in a public forum; there may be complex legal issues if I do. My apologies.)

  6. In Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother was feared because Big Brother could find out anything and everything about you and that was bad.
    Nowadays people disseminate anything and everything about themselves willingly, and nobody minds.
    That is also strange and paradoxical.