Search Engines – Their Politics; Their Logics

I’m part of a panel submission to the 6th International and Interdisciplinary Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR). The panel is titled “Search Engines – Their Politics; Their Logics”:

Search engines today seem to afford the only access point to the webspace that continually increases in both size and complexity. This panel undertakes a conceptual and technical investigation of search engines, tracing them from early days to their increasing political, financial and social significance in global life. We challenge notions of centrality and neutrality of search engines by examining search engine development and also explore its recent prominence as a paradigmatic research tool.

My contribution (based on my forthcoming dissertation proposal):

The Value Implications of the “Google Paradigm” for Organizing, Distributing and Accessing Information

Search engines have become the dominant tool for organizing, distributing and accessing information on the World Wide Web. The world’s largest search engine, Google, has become a ubiquitous tool for searching virtually all information on the Web, including images, news reports, Usenet archives, video files, books, academic scholarship, and most recently, university research libraries. Google’s mission, stated simply and innocuously, is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” From a company whose motto is “Do no evil,” it is perhaps easy to understand why Google’s method for organizing, distributing and accessing information – what I call the “Google-paradigm” – has been met with widespread enthusiasm. What is troubling, however, is how the Google-paradigm – and search engine technology in general – remains largely exempt from the type of criticism other information technologies have received in the context of political and human values (see Lessig, 1999; Mansell & Silverstone, 1996; Shrader-Frechette & Westra, 1997).

As the power and ubiquity of search engine technology intensifies, the politics embedded within them become more and more hidden. Users are likely to take the design of such tools “at interface value” (Turkle, 1995, p. 103) and fail to question or understand the consequences reliance on such information systems have on political and human values. This study expands the work of Itrona and Nissenbaum (2000), while employing methodologies proposed by the emergent perspective of Value Sensitive Design (see Friedman, Kahn & Borning, 2002), to challenge the popular discourses which embrace the Google paradigm for organizing, distributing and accessing information, and make apparent the value implications of such a wholesale commitment.

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., & Borning, A. (2002). Value sensitive design: Theory and methods (Technical Report 02-12-01): Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Computer Science and Engineering.
Introna. L. & Nissenbaum, H. (2000). Shaping the web: Why the politics of search engines matter. The Information Society, 16(3), 1-17.
Lessig, L. (1999). Code and other laws of cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.
Mansell, R. & Silverstone, R. (Eds.). (1996). Communication by design: The politics of information and communication technologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shrader-Frechette, K. & Westra, L. (Eds.). (1997). Technology and values. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Other participants in this panel include:

  • Denise Rall (Southern Cross University): “A method in the madness? The claims for ‘truth’ in search engine results”
  • Elizabeth Van Couvering (London School of Economics): “A History of Internet Search: from Engineers to Capitalists”
  • Eric Goldman (Marquette University Law School): “Search Engines and Relevancy”

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