March 2005


Most people take dictionaries for granted. On the odd occasion when they want to look up a word, they accept whatever they find -- it's a process like looking out of the window: you assume that what you see is what is actually outside. But all dictionaries are not made equal. Almost everybody uses some kind of web search engine. You go there, you look, and a result happens. What's there is there and what's not is not. And that is the problem.

People don't look up many words in dictionaries anymore. It doesn't make as much difference as it used to if you use the wrong word or spell it wrong. But when people do look for a word in the dictionary, they accept what they find largely as gospel. If they disagree with what they found, they think they're wrong and the book is right. But all dictionaries are not made equal.

Case in point: radical is defined different ways by different dictionaries:

They're different aren't they? The underlying meaning is common, but the way they are defined makes a difference in the way they're understood. Most telling are the first two, in my opinion, because they come from the same (alleged) source. The notion that the goal of radical political change is eliminating class inequalities has largely been expunged from contemporary American political discourse.

Are any of these definitions "wrong?" Probably not, but they're not the same, either. Yet we treat dictionaries like they have all the answers and they are infallible. We give no more thought to what they say, usually, than what we see through a window. We're supposed to see what is there, and we have to see something extremely odd to make us look at the view critically.

Well, the view most of us have of the Internet is pretty much whatever we can find through whatever search engine we use. The most popular search engines change from time to time. Most people use these days. Microsoft is trying to get people to use their search engine. We act like they're just different windows that will show us (at least predominately) the same things.

However, just like dictionaries, all search engines are not created equal. They show us different things sorted in different orders, according to different priorities. That's power. The ability to determine what millions of people will see on their computer screens when they initiate a search.

What if tomorrow, you went to your computer and you did a search for Martin Luther King Jr. or Eugene Debs or Equal Rights Amendment and you got zero hits? You'd think it pretty peculiar, wouldn't you? Well, if you do conduct a Web search for these terms, you will turn up dozens of sites, which say pretty much the same things, the same way. The predominant opinion ranks first (supposedly) and less popular opinions follow on later (eventually). Make an experiment for me: try to find something critical or even derogatory about Martin Luther King or Helen Keller or Mother Theresa.

Not to say that you can't do it, but it's not easy. And it's getting harder all the time to find unorthodox content on the Web. For one thing, it's been buried by tons of commercial crap. For another thing, there is a great deal of pressure on really out-there Web sites. They generate complaints to their ISPs, and ISPs do not like complaints.

The National Security Agency spends millions monthly on undisclosed projects connected with the Internet. Quite a bit of this budget is devoted to making sure we can't get access to secret or sensitive information (or if we can, that the window of opportunity is really short). It would not surprise me at all if government agencies also made a sincere effort to clean the Internet of material they find objectionable under other pretexts. Most "parental control" software uses the same type of algorithms to deny access to data. Where this stuff comes from, no one speculates. It is a fact that most of these programs will impede your ability to view porn sites, but many will also block access to content regarding Noam Chomsky, Kwane Ture, IWW and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (aka School of the Americas).

Conducting comparative web searches can be a fascinating occupation, if you have the time and resources to do it properly. It is amazing how different the results are for the same search from the same search engine when a) run from home or b) run from the Intranet of a major corporation. I have not made the experiment, but I'd love to try "Googling" topics from comparable nodes in London, Toronto, Tokyo and Los Angeles in the same 24-hour period and comparing the results.

Many people will think I am tilting at windmills. They'll tell me it doesn't make any difference and that there's nothing we can do anyway. Maybe they're right, but I think we should be aware of the questions we ought to ask, even if the answers elude us. That way lies liberty.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.