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Psychology of Technology: Should Search Engines Have a Conscience?

The recent appearance of a racist image of the First Lady Michelle Obama during a search on Google’s search engine raises an interesting question: Should search engines have a conscience? Obviously, search engines, like Google, Bing, and Yahoo!, that rely on highly complex algorithms to determine search results, have no intentional bias or inclinations that influence their searches. To suggest otherwise would be to anthropomorphize what is simply an immense and complicated set of computer code.

But that code is a creation of its individual developers and team of developers, each of whom has a conscience. And it is also a product of the company for whom they work. A company can’t have a conscience, you might think. To the contrary, every company, because it is comprised of individuals, has a conscience (it’s called a corporate culture). We can look no further than Google itself whose conscience is expressed in its motto: Don’t be evil. Given that powerful expression of the company’s conscience, it seems reasonable to assume that Google would be offended by the racist image of the Ms. Obama. And, to a degree, it’s up to the developers and the company to make a deliberate decision about whether and how to exercise their conscience in the formulation of the search-engine algorithms. In the case of Google, a spokesman told CNN that “We have a bias toward free expression. …That means that some ugly things will show up.” Despite this assertion, the image of Ms. Obama was removed by Google, though apparently not, according to the company, because it was distasteful, but rather because the page might have had malware that put viewers’ computers at risk.

To read the rest of my post, please visit my Techshrink blog here.