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March Issue

Vol 29|No 4|March 2019

Escaping Google's Stranglehold

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

It is essential that schools teach students how to escape this stranglehold that Google creates. While helping visitors to find the information they need, Google effectively limits and narrows their searches - steering them toward the obvious and the conventional. That is fine when you want the date of a battle or the name of Isadora Duncan's Russian husband, but it is not at all helpful when trying to reach a deep understanding about something as complex as character. Google is much better at supporting convergent thought than it is at enabling divergent exploration.

Google traffics in the ordinary, actually oversimplifying complex realities and lifetimes. Historical figures become icons -- stick figures rather than the complex individuals they were in actuality. There is a tendency toward whitewashing that is oddly combined at times with a fascination with scandals. We end up with a tabloid version of a person's life.

Benedict Arnold -------- Matthew Flinders -------- Alfred Hitchcock

I first started writing about this problem in my 2014 article, "Escaping the Filter Bubble." The stranglehold and the steering are worse now than they were back then.

What we have is "Searching for Dummies" - a kind of learned helplessness that fosters an unhealthy dependency on Google's steering and the wisdom of the crowd.

The antidote to the stranglehold involves two main strategies:

  1. Show students how much Google limits suggestions for historical figures so they will stop relying upon it when doing research.

  2. Provide alterative search engines, including Advanced Search Google, that support more divergent exploration.

Pointing to the obvious

As you begin to type the name of a famous person from history, Google starts to guess who you have in mind. As you reach the next to the last letter of the name, a list of possible subtopics appears below your search box. These suggestions tend to point you toward the obvious aspects of the person's life, as you can see in the examples displayed below, or they will seize upon some recent event or prurient interest like Bill Clinton staring at Ariana Grande's rear end at the funeral for Aretha Franklin.

It is important to scan the ten examples provided to see for yourself how Google accomplishes the steering. At some point we hope our students will perform a similar scan for historical figures and celebrities.

It's hard for students to feel much passion or enthusiasm writing one more essay describing Isadora Duncan as the "mother of modern dance" who died when her scarf became entangled in the wheel of the car carrying her. Most of the people shown above were quite interesting aside from their iconic images. It is our job as teachers to show students how to unmask iconic figures, as I wrote in 2013. Students become detectives, asking questions of import.

Image courtesy of Fighting-Wolf-Fist on Deviant Art

Biography Questions of Import

When students are asked to explore questions of import, the research is much more engaging, challenging and rewarding, but Google does not provide an easy pathway to explore this kind of question.

  1. In what ways was the life remarkable?

  2. In what ways was the life despicable?

  3. In what ways was the life admirable?

  4. What human qualities were most influential in shaping the way this person lived and influenced his or her times?

  5. Which quality or trait proved most troubling and difficult?

  6. Which quality or trait was most beneficial?

  7. Did this person make any major mistakes or bad decisions? If so, what were they and how would you have chosen and acted differently if you were in their shoes?

  8. What are the two or three most important lessons you or any other young person might learn from the way this person lived?

  9. Some people say you can judge the quality of a person's life by the enemies they make. Do you think this is true of your person's life? Explain why or why not.

  10. An older person or mentor is often very important in shaping the lives of gifted people by providing guidance and encouragement. To what extent was this true of your person? Explain.

  11. Many people act out of a "code" or a set of beliefs which dictate choices. It may be religion or politics or a personal philosophy. To what extent did your person act by a code or act independently of any set of beliefs? Were there times when the code was challenged and impossible to follow?

  12. What do you think it means to be a hero? Was your person a "hero?" Why? Why not? How is a hero different from a celebrity?

The wisdom of the crowd

Google has added a new feature recently. When you select an item such as "Isadora Duncan facts" from Google's list of suggested topics, a new menu pops up - "People also ask." If you select one of those items, an answer appears.

Instead of searchers developing unique and original perspectives on the lives of famous people, they are being led to see them just as the crowd sees them.

If you take the time to read a full biography of these famous people, an image usually emerges that is quite different from the iconic and simplified versions of their personalities and their lives that is promoted by the alliance between Google and sources like Wikipedia and Biography.com. If you read three different biographies of the same person, you will often feel like they are describing different people, depending upon the author's values and perspective.

While there were quite a few dancers who helped to invent what is now known as "modern dance," most of them have been forgotten or consigned to the "dustbin of history" as Isadora is elevated to an exaggerated and distorted level of influence that fails to credit the creative influence of many other artists who mattered at that time. If you stumble upon the movie "The Dancer" which shows the dance and life of Loie Fuller, you may question just who really is the mother of modern dance.

Seeking the context

It turns out that researchers may often lack the context for whatever issue, person or question they are exploring. Most search engines will amplify this problem by taking us swiftly to the central search item, but search engines like Qwiki.com were eager in 2011 to share related information that helped to supply the missing context. In the case of Isadora Duncan, Qwiki suggested the following related people and topics:

Raymond Duncan Modern Dance
Edward Gordon Elenora Duse
Graig Augustin Daly Mercedes de Acosta
Isaac Singer Romano Romanelu

Unless you lived through part of that century and followed the celebrities of those years, most of these names would be unknown to you, yet they were important to understanding the life of Isadora Duncan. If one cannot take the time to understand the dance, theater, and personalities of those years, one cannot hope to understand a complex person like Isadora Duncan. For that matter, when you clicked on the link to modern dance, Qwiki offered a menu of dance-related links without which one could hardly understand modern dance.

Dance Concert Dance
Free Dance Expressionist Dance
Ausdruckstanz Postmodern Dance
African-American Dance  

As well as Mary Wigman and Loie Fuller!

Once these links appear, it becomes apparent that a huge amount of background information is missing without which one cannot hope to understand the time period, let alone any one individual who was a celebrity during those years. Our new technologies allow us to zoom in almost too easily, missing so much context. Unfortunately, Qwiki has been shut down along with Raroi.com. Are there new search engines that broaden rather than narrow our view?

Sadly, at the time I wrote this article in 2019, I could find no search engine that was divergent and suggestive in the way Qwiki was as described above.

A generation of free range searchers

© iStock.com

The main thrust of this article is the importance of wandering farther afield to explore unusual possibilities rather than giving in to the “helpful” guidance and structuring of some search engines. This process is described in great detail in the article, "Escaping the Filter Bubble," with Isadora Duncan used as an example. Sadly, some of the wonderful search engines available in 2014 that supported divergent searching have disappeared and none have taken their place.

What we need is a generation of free range searchers.

Photo by Arnold Genthe of Duncan performing barefoot during her 1915–1918 American tour, Public Domain

Since there are no search engines currently available that help us to perform divergent thoughts and discover information and relationships that would not occur to those with little background on the person or subject at hand, we must equip students with search skills that will accomplish the same thing using the advanced search features of a search engine such as Google.

© Jamie McKenzie

To illustrate this process, we will blend into our searching choice key words from the biography questions of import listed earlier. We will continue to explore Isadora Duncan since this article has already provided some sense of the puzzle which was her life. Most who research the lives of important people are greeted by an incomplete jigsaw puzzle missing most of its pieces. Filling in the missing pieces takes intense guesswork and inferential reasoning.

  • Isadora Duncan AND critics

  • Isadora Duncan AND criticism

  • Isadora Duncan AND alcohol

  • Isadora Duncan AND "marital problems"

  • Isadora Duncan AND health

  • Isadora Duncan AND decline

  • Isadora Duncan AND personality

  • Isadora Duncan AND faults

  • Isadora Duncan AND money

  • Isadora Duncan AND complaints

  • Isadora Duncan AND failure

You can employ the same kind of list with any important or famous person at Advanced Google and you will rapidly move past the simplistic ordinary findings displayed by Simple Google.

In the case of Isadora, this approach led to a rich harvest of surprising information that contrasted with the icon. "Isadora Duncan AND critics" produces quite a few articles that reveal the clay feet with which she danced through life.

"Isadora: The Sensational Life of Isadora Duncan" by Peter Kurth is far from flattering and reveals, for example, her strident racism:

A thoroughgoing racist, Isadora railed against "the tottering, ape-like convulsions" of jazz dancers, "wriggling from the waist downwards" in erotic suggestiveness. Of Argentinian critics, Isadora concluded: "They are niggers. They understood nothing."

Kurth goes on to paint Isadora in often horrific terms, pulling her down from the pedestal upon which she is usually perched by modern, superficial portrayals. But this depth and complexity is one of the benefits of reading a full length biography or the review of one.

Photo © iStock.com

The goal of this research is not to "dig up the dirt" on famous people but to put together a realistic profile of the person that creates a balance between positive and negative character traits and steps down from the often overblown images usually attached to icons.

There is always some danger that events and people from history will be sanitized, disneyfied, cleaned up and distorted by standard resources. The celebrities may be turned into icons, and sometimes they may also be scandalized.

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