What do you think?

by Pamela Stirling / 17 June, 2006

At the very time when Parliament is considering banning all interjections from Question Time in the House - extraordinary in a democracy - this magazine is asking its readers to speak louder. We want to hear more of what you think are the real issues out there. Our "I-think.co.nz" campaign has already had 3000 hits in its first few days and is turning up excellent suggestions. The pressure for Telecom's Theresa Gattung to talk, for example, is clearly such that we should perhaps have run with the cover-line we were tempted to go with a fortnight ago: "Theresa, pick up the phone!"

We've been asked, of course, why we didn't just check out the hits on Google to find the topics that most interest New Zealanders. Two reasons. One, we want that direct conversation with you; that powerful sense of engagement with what New Zealanders are thinking. And secondly, because there is a strong argument that Google is simply making everyone stupid.

How so? Google's PageRank system works as a form of "Information Idol". It displays stories selected by computer algorithms. Because people rarely proceed past the first page of links, the top pages are repeatedly visited - and so retain their top ranking. Consider what could happen if we used Google: we'd have Rodney Hide resplendent in his dancing shoes on the cover of the Listener.

In truth, there are worse dangers with Google. All a student has to do, for example, is type "Martin Luther King" into a search and there as the fourth link is the site martinluther-king.org, selling itself as a "valuable resource for teachers and students alike". Is this really, as it claims, "A True Historical Examination"? Hardly. This white supremacist site preaches that King was a plagiarist, communist and fraud-artist. It promotes the works of US fascist David Duke, who "offers compelling evidence that belief in racial equality is the modern scientific equivalent of believing the Earth is flat". That's before you get to his outrageous anti-Semitic views. And yet Google has given this site a prominent rating for more than five years.

Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist who's made a fortune out of both Google and Yahoo!, is worried. He has spoken of his concern about the role such user-generated media would have played in 1931 in Munich; how easy it would have been to broadcast the message. He thinks the Nazis would have got power quicker.

Even now writer Gideon Haigh points out how ugly it all gets on Google: the fifth link in a search for Adolf Hitler is the Hitler Historical Museum with its statements that negative views of Nazism are "standard, uninformative and clich├ęd".

Even Paul Saffo, a futurologist described by the Economist as one of the world's most enthusiastic technophiles, warns of the downside. In a world where most young people do not now read newspapers - Google founder Larry Page boasts he never reads newspapers at all - the ability to cocoon yourself in your own web world and shut out anything that conflicts with your world view is "social dynamite". We risk huddling together, says Saffo, "into tribes defined by shared prejudices".

The shining promise that Google would link us via huge virtual libraries to all of civilised wisdom still stands - but is dimmed now by the knowledge that fully 80 percent of the most knowledge-rich databases are seldom accessed.

It's not, in fact, that the mainstream media is always so superior. The journal Nature recently commissioned a comparison of a sample of articles drawn from the free online collaborative encyclopaedia Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica: they reported 162 errors in Wikipedia's articles and 123 in Britannica's.

And there are clear advantages in the rise of participatory media. Citizen-reporters took some extraordinary images during London's train bombings and during Hurricane Katrina.

But there are real grounds for fear that a reliance on the internet and a decline in newspapers will limit not just the public discourse but also the ability of professional journalists to monitor powerful institutions. The best outcome in a democratic society is for the readers to be as involved as possible. In times of profound change, people gravitate to magazines they trust - we're already seeing that in our record subscriptions at the Listener. Now, we'd like to ramp up the conversation. And make sure it's heard. Are you listening, Theresa? http://www.i-think.co.nz

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