SDP2007 Presentation: The Quest for the Perfect Search Engine

Michael Zimmer @ SDP2007Today I gave an abbreviated presentation of my dissertation research at the OII Summer Doctoral Programme hosted by the Berkman Center. (PDF of slides)

Along with a summary of the diss, my talk included a brief meta-discussion of both the challenges of engaging in value-conscious design with technical design communities, as well as a call for help on the next steps I need to take with this research, which included these three areas:

  1. Continued conceptual expansion of the values at play with the design of the perfect search engine: This includes helping arrive at a suitable answer to the common retort that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about” (Many pointed to Dan Solove’s excellent essay on this very topic). Also within this category is the need to condense these philosophical arguments into digestible sound bites to be deployed in debate settings such as FoxNews.
  2. Continued technical analysis: We need to engage in what I describe as Ben Edelman-style technical analyses of how web search engines collect personal data. I’ve already performed a rough analysis of the flow of web cookies and HTTP header data when using various search products, but we need to better understand other automated processes of collecting data, evaluate interface design, default settings, accessibility of privacy policies, etc. For example, I’m curious as to how long it takes a brand-new computer hooked up to the Internet to acquire a Google tracking cookie…
  3. Initiate empirical studies: I aim to collaborate with other more-empirically-minded social scientists to engage in what I describe as Eszter Hargittai-style user studies to help measure actual uses of various search engine products, and any related harms & effects that materialize.

Following my brief presentation, Jonathan Zittrain provided a very thoughtful and useful critique of my talk, focusing not so much on my substantive claims, but rather its structure and my delivery. This was extremely useful feedback as I must already re-enter the job market for 2008.

More thoughts and reactions to my talk (and Zittrain’s response) have been posted by Joris van Hoboken, Ismael Peña-López, and Daithí Mac Síthigh (who also took the photo above).


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