Congratulations on your new parent!

Bhavitha B is a student at Takshashila’s GCPP (Tech and Policy) Programme. Views are personal.

Toddlers, however dependent they seem, most often do not surrender to terms of their parents, sometimes fight back and sometimes speak up in gurgles of sounds. Like gurgly toddlers who have learnt the power of words but are yet to understand grammar, I suspended my stance in the war of grammatical rules and keyed in a dispersed string of words “mirror wall craft diy” into my search engine. I did not intend on communicating that I had a mirror wall neither was I seeking to learn the craft of wall making. What I meant was “Craft ideas using a mirror, for my wall, that I can do myself, without too much help from other people or dependency on complicated tools” and funnily what the search engine understood was “Mirror craft ideas for her wall that she can do by herself”. The same.

This premeditated gluing of an unconnected set of words by Search Engines, to learn what I wanted to get at, is a well-known function of Search Engine Optimization, hashtags, and NLP- Natural Language Processing, that we all have very quickly understood to use to our advantage. When was the last time you typed “Can you suggest some good Japanese restaurants around me?” For very few people, it could have been days ago, who are continuing to live under an oath taken in high school to carry a burdening boulder of grammar throughout life. For some, it could have been 4 months ago, when they had the opportunity to move around and eat Japanese food in fancy restaurants. But for most of us, it has been years. Not because we choose not to cook/eat Japanese recipes, but because we know, one can get the job done by parsing “Japanese restaurants nearby”

Search engines know. Most often these engines figure out the rest of your questions’ undercurrents, even if you didn’t explicitly mention/ didn’t want them to. “Japanese Restaurants” is a code to bring to your screen all the Japanese restaurants in your city, filtered by ratings, price per person, reviews, and operational timings. “Nearby” is code to detect your location and assimilate a list of restaurants according to your geography. In this case, search engine dons the hat of a local Japanese cuisine connoisseur of your country you can rely on for suggestions and directions. If you search for Japanese restaurants in Japan, the search results would be different, not just because Japanese food is authentic in Japan, but because search results vary for every individual. Search engines contextualizeBouramoul, Abdelkrim. (2016).

Here’s a familiar contextualizing conversation with a friendly patronising system called, The Search Engine:

Hey! Where can I buy bread here?

“Sure, take the 2nd left from the park. You’ll find yourself in a market full of bakeries. If you are looking for the local specialty, I would suggest you go no further than the 4.7 star rated BreadMast Bakery, a lot of people’s favourite. This is how it looks and their freshly baked bread is sold between 10am-11am. Some of your friends have visited it a week ago and do read this gentleman’s open spite with the owner because his chair was wobbly, he eventually got a 20% on his next visit.

Also, have you heard of the BreadMast brand of bread that you can order home? I know 4 people who can deliver it to where you live and you seem to have not met any of them yet. They can give you a discount of 10% if you order now.

Here’s the fun part. Why don’t you add a table lamp in your cart? You were trying to fix your old lamp on Sunday, when it stopped working after you watched the horror film on your TV. You spoke to your partner in London shortly after the movie and you couldn’t sleep. You tried to switch the light on and it didn’t work and you asked me about “table lamp fixing hacks”

I remember the movie you saw had a character who surprises strangers by landing at their doorstep with packets, captures their senses to make them unconscious. Also, don’t you live down the lane in Building #7, I can deliver your bread and light, at your doorstep. I am 100% safe”

This level of detailing to understand and contextualize is built to do only one thing — conquer.

Why do we have such innovations renovating all the semantics, social infrastructure, and methods of human madness? I think it is because humans hurry. There is a hurriedness in the way we think, work we do, and wisdom we try to assimilate. Isn’t this completely justified owing to the fact that a human’s lifetime has limited validity to figure out all the intended and unintended ripple effects a cause can create? As a species of grit, we work to reduce, recycle, and reuse efforts collaboratively, to not waste time. And in this pursuit, we built search engines.

As we age into gurgly toddlers whose occasional sounds and words are fully understood, tasks to do taken awayminds & moods concluded, needs provided for, and every move of ours kept under surveillance, a frustrated one can retrieve the good old fights of ‘I am a grown-up, I can do my things. Stop interfering!’ fight with this new parent.

Not to lament, we are not at war with search engines…yet. And we do not have to make an unconditional surrender. Some policy level changes can help establish strict search engine ethical positions:

  1. Indian Cyber and Information Security Division, to regularly scrutinise privacy agreements furnished by search-based businesses, e-commerce firms etc., to remove any influence to infringe user privacy and deceptive advertising based on search.
  2. A law enforcement, to determine user Rights towards freedom to decide the extent of access to information and immersive experience on the platform. For example, by default, search history sharing across internal or external product suite, to be an opt-in option rather than a default option, voice search regulations, automatic mapping of customer persona through search history, removal clauses to use any sensitive information in FRT applications etc.
  3. Search is a digital common good. Data Protection Authority of India, should prevent low intensity threats such as Black Hat SEO tactics to high intensity threats such as data breaches, monopolies by platforms offering or aggregating information. Severe breaches to be penalised heavily.

Interestingly, Sergei Brin, Google founder said, “My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all.”. Currently, the ownness is on the user to read through Terms and Conditions, edit search settings to discard search aggregation and turn off unnecessary storage of user data. If we continue to hold on to — “I am a grown up, I can do my things, stop interfering!” to this new all-knowing parent, we all know how those arguments end — There is partial winning in moving out and a complete win in surrendering.