Amy Wilentz is a writer. She was killed by Google on July 23, 1996, but she’s still alive to tell the story. As you may have guessed by now, what happened was a simple mix-up.
Google indexes the web constantly, checking if the Internet has changed one website at a time. One day, they indexed Wilentz’s Wikipedia page, which mentions her late father. A bot spotted the dates of her father’s life nearby her own name. That seemed good enough to the artificial intelligence, so it pulled the disparate data and glued it onto a card. After that, when you searched Amy Wilentz, Google would inform you that she was dead.
In a hilarious, cutting account, Wilentz laments the experience of trying to get her card (or "factbox") updated:
An error in a Google search 'factbox’ can only be corrected when Google re-indexes (whatever that means) the information that will update the search. Depending on the size of your website, re-indexing takes either a couple of days, or several months. Like good guys, small websites finish last. Note: my website is small.
There is no way to speed up the process if you are a simple individual, unless you own the original source file or website from which the information comes (in this case, Wikipedia—I don’t own it) and are willing to get in there and use Google webmaster tools to deal with the situation.
Under the factbox is an opportunity to provide feedback. If you click on it, the word 'wrong?' appears next to each fact. Needless to say, I have clicked on it for the dates of my birth and death; however, the factbox doesn’t ask for elucidation.
Actually, I have 'wronged’ my facts many times in the last few months—but they are still there. This is what happens when the world is ruled by a robot. Luckily in this case the consequences are not dire, but merely amusing and slightly (for me) existential.
This, of course, is one silly mistake that happened as Google successfully handles countless queries every day. No one was really hurt. Nothing bad really happened. Google since fixed the issue, and life can go on for Wilentz (literally).
But it does underscore how Google’s role is shifting in the world of big data. Their cards that summarize Wikipedia entries and celebrities may seem subtle, but they represent a neatly curated presentation of relevant information, not just a pile of regurgitated words. They’ve entered the realm of data visualization, driven by a whole secondary level of logic that is cutting, pasting, and synthesizing. When we weren’t looking, Google started prechewing the Internet for us, and we began trusting it as much as its sources.
Whereas once upon a time, all Google had to do was provide us a list of links associated with a search term, now Google is truly repackaging information. They’ve moved to the roll of, not just an Internet guide, but an Internet interpreter. Or, at least in this case, misinterpreter.
[Top image: Skull via Shutterstock.]