Very interesting interview of Google News director at NiemanLab.
Krishna Bharat ponders about POVs (Point of View).
“many perspectives coming together can be much more educational than singular points of view”. Ok, I agree.
“You really want the most articulate and passionate people arguing both sides of the equation.” Ok.
“Then, technology can step in to smooth out the edges and locate consensus.” Technology to step in starts to become less agreeable. For doing what? For telling me the truth? What is the most consensual representation of facts?
“That is the opportunity that having an objective, algorithmic intermediary provides you”.
This is the point that I really don’t like. Shall we rely on the algorithmic objectivity to form our visions of world facts? Interestingly this is how Google was “casting” its algorithm for many years: “PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web” or “be based on impartial and objective relevance criteria“.
The interview goes on with “If you trust the algorithm to do a fair job and really share these viewpoints, then you can allow these viewpoints to be quite biased if they want to be.” and “Trusting in the algorithm means trusting in the tacit completeness of the automation it offers to readers.”
Now, I think it is a bit scary that a corporation asks you to trust the objective, algorithmic intermediary they provide to you (with the goal of making money, which is of course totally acceptable per se).
Actually I agree with Ken Thompson that in “Reflections on Trusting Trust” (Communication of the ACM, Vol. 27, No. 8, August 1984, pp. 761-763) claimed You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (It it very pertinent also that in the paper the very next sentence is Especially code from companies that employ people like me).
As last point, I would like to say that I prefer to trust the transparent social process that happens, for example, on Wikipedia. On pages such as “Climate Change” hundreds of different editors participate and, even if Wikipedia policy asks to write from a Neutral Point of View, it is undeniable that many of them have strong POVs. This is very visible on controversial pages such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for example.
What I prefer of Wikipedia, over the objective, algorithmic intermediary provided by Google, is the fact the process is carried out by humans (this is not completely true since there are many automatic bots on Wikipedia but currently they perform mainly maintenance tasks) and, more importantly, the fact you can analyze the complete history of edits (and who made them) that brought each article to its current state. Moreover, if you don’t agree with the current framing of a concept, you can get involved and contribute your POV by editing the page or discussing it in the related talk page.
Let me highlight also how the FAQ about Neutral Point of View on Wikipedia clearly states that “the NPOV policy says nothing about objectivity. In particular, the policy does not say that there is such a thing as objectivity in a philosophical sense—a “view from nowhere” (to use Thomas Nagel’s phrase), such that articles written from that viewpoint are consequently objectively true.”
Let me conclude with the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi which in “La ginestra” (Wild Broom) was lamenting “le magnifiche sorti e progressive” (the “magnificent and progressive fate”) of the human race. I think we should do it all a bit more than we currently do instead of embracing algorithmic objectivity.
Image: Giacomo Leopardi from Wikipedia (in the public domain)
How Wikipedia handles content disputes is interesting too.
The only issues that get treated as formal disputes are conduct and behaviour. You can complain that an editor is being impolite or abusive or reverting other peoples changes without justifying why and that will get a response. If you complain that another editor is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to edit you will criticised, not the other editor.
“Assume good faith” is the watchword that all editors are meant to work by – though sometimes it helps to think of this as ‘giving them enough rope to hang themselves’. Treat every other editor as if they are really trying to get the best, most neutral article that can be achieved. It amazes me how successful this process is. The number of cases that actually end up with English Wikipedia’s Arbitration comittee is tiny.