The Unlifted Veil

13 March 2017

Those who googled “fashion week” this September would have been met by a top-of-page carousel, presenting news, images and videos from more than 50 luxury fashion labels. Including brands such as Prada, Burberry and Hermès, the box of sliding entries was devised by Kate Lanphear, the former editor of Maxim. It professed to offer a ticket into the exclusive world of high-end fashion. The masses may be barred from the shows, but they would still have a chance to follow their revelations.

What Google did not mention is that the curation of the carousel was overseen by the brands themselves. The impetus behind this move seems to be principally financial. According to a report by brand-advisory company L2, Instagram held around 97 per cent of social-media interaction during this autumn’s New York Fashion Week. If Google allows brands to control the carousels themselves, perhaps they will be tempted towards the search engine instead. It could claim to attract the “right” sort of consumers; in return the brands would advertise more and feed exclusive information through the platform, attracting even more users.

You might say “that’s just business.” The overwhelming bulk of Google’s revenue comes from advertising, but the implications of ceding control to a third party spiral out in a more worrying direction. What if Google started to allow more sinister organisations to take control? What if, having shown the function works, Google starts furtively curating what people see to satisfy its own ends? There is already a degree of murkiness around Google’s result-ranking algorithms and the 200 or so factors on which they rely. These are a sort of digital equivalent to Colonel Sanders’ 11 herbs and spices: although they inspire curiosity, you’re not quite sure you want to know the full composition. Add a human element to this process and the engine’s appearance of objectivity dissipates.

Such objectivity, of course, was never guaranteed. Instead, the search engine’s utility, ubiquity, straightforward design and apparent compendiousness project the illusion of impartiality. We’ve been conditioned to see Google as a simple tool, as opposed to a competing interest among the internet’s millions. It is time for that veil to be lifted.