Did our landlords** in coastal California set a real life ‘Crap Detection 101 ’ test too hard for even eagle-eyed would-be renters?

Not a working search box, just a reminder of the uncertainty of even a fine search engine's results

Not a working search box, just a reminder of the uncertainty of even a fine search engine’s results

[ Note: this is a modified version of the original web page. See: About ]


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 the Villa Que Sera, a house on a fashionable patch of the California coast (see footnote**).

We were forced to hold our noses and start writing our record, Pooh!, when we discovered that our  landlords, the Humperdinks, had told the world about our legal complaint about their house.

Only, … that was not quite what they did. They misrepresented our case against them in a, shall we say, surprising, report to the Stinson Beach County Water District (SBCWD) as a lawsuit about another category of problem altogether, one we had never experienced or mentioned to this authority.

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 the Villa Que Sera, renters. Before we signed the rental lease for this abode, 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.

On a blog named Crap Detection 101, for a ‘mini-course’ on the subject he offers – was there ever a more perfect and improbable coincidence? – he says:

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?

**[ Note: this is a modified version of the original web page. See: About ]


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