Cory Doctorow on Google's Algorithms (and Plato)

(via Boing Boing) Cory Doctorow just gave me everything I want to see in a headline:

Google admits that Plato's cave doesn't exist

The article is about a recent change in rhetoric by Google about their pagerank methodology.  As Doctorow puts it:

The pagerank algorithm isn't like an editor arguing aesthetics around a boardroom table as the issue is put to bed. The pagerank algorithm is a window on the wall of Plato's cave, whence the objective, empirical world of Relevance may be seen and retrieved.

That argument is a convenient one when the most contentious elements of your rankings are from people who want higher ranking. [...]

The problem with that argument is that maths is inherently more regulatable than speech. If the numbers say that item X must be ranked over item Y, a regulator may decide that a social problem can be solved by "hard-coding" page Y to have a higher ranking than X, regardless of its relevance. This isn't censorship – it's more like progressive taxation.

I like this because of what it says about Google's evolving role in the business of information curating.  I like the idea of Google taking more responsibility for the content people see via their search engine, and refusing to diminish that responsibility by being swayed by corporate interests.

It's also great to think that Google's filtering protocols are becoming more public knowledge -- they make content on the internet valuable, but they also carry significant risks, and it's important that we remain conscious of them and make proactive decisions about our relationship to the content we're exposed to.

But I love the way Doctorow frames the issue, because I love seeing any public stab against Platonism.

Platonism (summarized to emphasize the aspects I object to[1. I think this is valid, since I'm acknowledging I'm doing it, because philosophical discussions can get confusing quickly and I'd rather this not get derailed by nitpicking],) is the belief that there are fundamental, immutable truths called forms that literally exist, and can be perceived with sufficient training.  The highest of these forms is the form of the Good, which Platonism argues can be accessed by individuals after years and years of study, giving them straightforward, unambiguous correct answers to moral questions.

It'd be awesome if this were true, but it isn't -- and one of the many problems with Platonism is that it leads people who've spent a lot of time dwelling on a particular idea to ultimately come to believe that they've accessed ultimate truth, rather than that they've just spent too much time getting far too good at finding illusory patterns.  (There are other problems too.)

I've written before about how the organization of a story affects how it gets read, and this is the sort of use that I like to see, in that vein.  Stuff like the titles of opinion pieces flavor the conversation we have as a society about more than just the subject of the article.