Through the Google Goggles: Sociopolitical Bias in Search Engine Design

Alejandro Diaz, a grad student at Stanford University in Communications (with a BA in Computer Science), has written an excellent (and nearly 200-page) honors thesis entitled “Through the Google Goggles: The Sociopolitics of Search Engine Design” [pdf]. Here is the abstract:

As much of our knowledge, news, and discourse moves online and to the Web in particular, search engines are increasingly becoming the “gatekeepers” of cyberspace. What’s more, a single search engine—Google—now handles the majority of Web queries. Google directs hundreds of millions of users towards some content and not others, towards some sources and not others. As with all gatekeepers (e.g., television networks), if we believe in the principles of deliberative democracy—and especially if we believe that the Web is an open, “democratic” medium—then we should expect our search engines to disseminate a broad spectrum of information on any given topic. But unlike most other gatekeepers, the information disseminated through modern search engines is not explicitly chosen and written by journalists, editors, and producers. It is instead largely determined by a complex system of algorithms, hardware, and software. The varied designs for search technologies encode certain values about what sort of content is “important,” “relevant,” or “authoritative.” In this thesis, following a hybrid approach that incorporates both media studies and STS theories, we will look at the biases of, motivations for, use of, and resistance to the Google search engine. It is hoped that through this analysis, we might start to uncover the sociopolitics of search.

Alex does an excellent job bringing the disciplines of science and technology studies, political theory, and the political economy of the media together to better understand the ways in which Google might (or might not) support a robust deliberative democracy through the delivery of diverse news and information.

This thesis, of course, is closely related to my own dissertation research which challenges 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. While Alex focuses primarily on whether Google can adequately provide diverse information to support democratic deliberation, my work will broaden the analysis to situate search engines as technologies of power, complicating the view of search engines as free and egalitarian gatekeepers of information by revealing how the design of these knowledge tools shape the information they aim to present and set the very limits of knowledge. Additionally, I will explore whether future designs of search engines can ensure not only Alex’s concern for diverse information, but also embody political and ethical values, including the protection of privacy, autonomy and freedom from bias.

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