Can search engines stand in for guardian angels, protecting us from harm by making it easy to tip each other off about risks of almost any kind? Once, our optimism on this score was boundless. We thought: If you read carefully enough, if you vet the reasoning of sources of online information and check the references they offer, you usually have a reasonable index of their reliability. Usually, yes. But what about a business operator who sets out to mislead potential customers deliberately – and gets an unwary quasi-governmental organization not just to give that lie its blessing, but publish the misinformation online, with its seal of official authority?
We procrastinated for months before we started this blog, even though one of us still suffers lingering symptoms from injury by a series of foul sewage crises which — we learnt too late — had begun years before we rented a house on a fashionable patch of the California coast.
We were forced to hold our noses and start writing our record, Pooh!, when the landlord herself — a real estate broker — decided to tell the world about our legal complaint about her house’s inhabitability.
Only, … that was not quite what she did. She misrepresented our case against her, reporting it to the Stinson Beach County Water District (SBCWD) as a lawsuit about poor water quality. Amazing! We had never uttered a peep of dissatisfaction about water purity. Our record of email correspondence with her shows, as plainly as billboard type, that the chronic breakdowns of her personal sewage system – the consequence of idiosyncratic maintenance and incomplete repairs – were at the centre of the trouble.
What did the understaffed water authority – which also monitors local sewage systems – do? Without checking with us or inspecting the court records, the SBCWD took the landlord at her word. It posted on its web site: ‘Ms. Marden Plant, who owns a rental home at 297 Seadrift Road, is being sued by her tenants for water quality. We sent her a copy of our laboratory reports, confirming the absence of coliform, and a copy of our “Disinfection, Flushing and Pipeline Testing Procedures” of August 2011.’
The SBCWD’s water contamination test results gave the landlord’s tall tale a false and utterly unmerited veneer of reliability. It has formally recorded our correction, now, but think of the damage that could have been done by the interlude of unwitting deception. … Say that you contract a dire case of food poisoning after a meal at a restaurant, but the manager reports your fury about that to the county health authorities as a charge of cockroach infestation. County pest inspectors arrive. Naturally, they find no creepy-crawlies, and put a report certifying the restaurant as pest-free on the net. The restaurant appears to be as innocent as fresh snow – but you, a delusional nut.
Poor would-be diners! – or in the case of 297 Seadrift Road, renters. Before we signed the rental lease for No: 297, we had googled the address and its owners’ names – but because no previous tenant plagued by the malfunctioning sewage mechanism had gone public, search engines turned up none of the suffering of our predecessors. We only found out about that from what lawyers call ‘discovery’ – the record of the house’s true history that the legal process compelled the landlord to supply.
We wonder what advice the canny technology pundit Howard Rheingold would have to offer us, here. He teaches at Stanford University’s Department of Communication, and has actually published a book of advice about using the internet wisely: Net Smart.
The answer to almost any question is available within seconds, courtesy of the invention that has altered how we discover knowledge – the search engine. Materializing answers from the air turns out to be the easy part – the part a machine can do. The real difficulty kicks in when you click down into your search results. At that point, it’s up to you to sort the accurate bits from the misinfo, disinfo, spam, scams, urban legends, and hoaxes. “Crap detection,” as Hemingway called it half a century ago, is more important than ever before, now that the automation of crapcasting has generated its own word: “spamming.”
Spammers, of course, are just another category of trickster. … We wonder, could Howard’s crap detector have penetrated the crap camouflage deployed on behalf of a certain house in Stinson Beach?