Quaero: isn’t that the search engine that former French president Jacques Chirac declared to be the European challenge to Google? A public alternative to Silicon Valley-born commercial search engines, funded by the French state, in service of the public good, in the true tradition of the grand projet? An information machine capable of reclaiming European language and intellectual heritage in the age of globalization?
No. Quaero is the name of a consortium of technology firms and research labs working together on multimedia and web search projects. It is a state-sponsored effort to stimulate private French technological competitiveness.
But still, the issues that the idea of Quaero has raised – since its public launch by the former French president – constitute a formidable challenge. Internet search engines are political projects proper if only because they give and take power; they represent science, technology, (trans)national politics, private enterprise, culture, territoriality and language in ever different combinations.
On 29 and 30 September 2007, the Jan van Eyck Academie, in collaboration with the Maison Descartes, Institut Français des Pays-Bas, organizes the Forum on Quaero, taking the concept of the search engine as a pubic project as a starting point.
Search engines’ indexation methods inevitably lead to moments of inclusion and exclusion (sometimes by hands-on censorship). Search engines closely monitor their users’ behaviour and offer additional services, retrieving and storing increasing amounts of private information from them. The majority of web search is carried out through only a few, very large corporate search engines which communicate ideas about their role in the world via their brand identities. These may lead to distorted impressions of what the commercial search engine as a institution really entails. This conference aims to bridge the gap between politics, policies and practices in the field of web search. Some questions:
• What are the politics of the structure and image of search engines and their technologies?
• To what extent have search engines like Google, which started from the ideal of access to information, become the modus operandi of political bias? Can we envisage scenarios for the search engine as a public domain institution?
• What kind of hierarchy (if any) should be implemented when deciding what should go into a search engine’s database, and what is left out?
• Can contemporary web practices tackle the conventional static models used to archive and present (institutional) concepts of cultural heritage and democracy?
• Collaborative and participatory methods are increasingly placing the Demos as the force that structures information. Can we work towards a ‘politics of code & categorization’ that allows plural interpretations of data to coexist and enrich each other?
• How can concepts of digital and networked European cultural heritage reflect the political and social issues related to Europe’s changing borders?
The Forum encourages and facilitates audience participation; it is meant as a public think tank, a live sketchbook around new questions for the search engine.
I feel honored to be presenting my thoughts on the Quaero search engine project alongside such notable scholars as Florian Cramer, Jodi Dean, Frédéric Martel, Ingmar Weber, Isabelle Stengers, Bureau d’Études, Metahaven, Tsila Hassine, Richard Rogers, Florian Schneider, Maurits de Bruijn, Sabine Niederer, and André Nusselder.
My contribution to the discussion is titled “Privacy and Quaero’s Quest for the Perfect Search Engine: Threats and Opportunities” — I’ll post more details closer to the event details are here.
UPDATE: An excellent summary of the event can be read here. Thanks, Erik!