I originally posted this as a comment to this article by Mike Wacker about Google manipulating search rankings.
But I now think it should be posted as a stand-alone essay. I have edited the original post for style and clarity.
This article by Mr. Wacker provoked these thoughts and got me to thinking.
We traditionally think of force in human interactions as taking place when someone is holding a gun to someone’s head to compel (or prohibit) certain conduct, and/or killing to prevent conduct. Note the difference. Killing can only prohibit further action by the target of the force. And other than its demonstrative effect to frighten others, can produce no other response. While the threat of a gun held to someone’s head can both prohibit and compel action.
Therefore we can surmise that threats have a more utilitarian/practical value to the person holding the gun. We tolerate force employed by government when that force (killing and threatening) is used to stop crimes: murder, rape, robbery, arson. This happens when a crime is actually stopped by the police while the crime is happening live, a rare occurrence. And it happens (mostly) when the criminal is apprehended after the crime, tried in a court of law, found guilty, and then compelled to live separately in a prison for punishment and/or the protection of others.
When the government starts using force outside of traditional crime stoppage and segregation of criminals from society, that society will start sliding toward tyranny. Small steps at first, to be sure. But the pace usually accelerates as more and more human conduct is “directed” by the threat of force.
Google is not a government. (Yet.) And while it does not employ force to manipulate conduct, it does make one question whether or not it may be appropriate to re-evaluate the definition, or at least the context, of when we label goal-directed manipulation of some people, by any entity, as force.
Example: A blind person asks me for directions to an address. The address is one door to my left. If the blind man had sight, he would see the address. He is depending on my eyesight (my search engine) to verbally tell him the truth about his destination. Instead of giving him that information (your search result is one door to my left), I tell him that his destination (his requested search result) is 600 steps to my right. Except, 600 steps to my right is an unmarked plunge off of a 1000 foot cliff, certain death. The blind man will die if he accepts my instructions. I’ve used no force against this man. No weapon was employed. I’m not obligated by kinship or contract to guide this blind man to his destination. He approached me after all, I did not approach him. It’s even possible that he might have walked off the cliff by himself if I had not been there. If the blind man walks off the cliff and dies, have I committed a crime?
Distinguish the blind man’s search for the correct address he is trying to obtain, and the average Google user’s query via Google’s various search engines and any manipulations by those search engines. The consequence might not be life or death today, nor happen in one sudden plunge off a cliff. But is a slow motion decent into tyranny any better, one small manipulated bit of information at a time? Times millions (billions) of queries per day?
What are the natural law/natural rights arguments for and against Google’s (or any information provider) manipulating data to skew public opinion? Especially in a country where parties are winning power by a mere handful of votes?
We had better find a solution soon or risk a reevaluation about whether 2 + 2 = 5.