The Decline of Media Studies (and Privacy) in a Search Engine Society

I often hear statements like “I’m the top Google result for my name!” or “Kiwi is the top search result for shoe polish!” Truth is, there’s no such thing. You can know the top results that you see, and you can survey what others see, but only the search engine knows what everybody is seeing in response to a query. Evgeny Morozov worries about this trend:

There is a danger that we will become even less well-informed, as the web becomes both more personalised and more social. Concerns that the internet traps users in unchallenging information ghettos are not new, stretching back to 2001 and the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein’s book Republic.com. Sunstein argues that, when compared to older media, the internet allows users to seek out opinions and news with which they already agree, creating online news ghettos in which the views of right and left rarely mix.

What is surprising, however, is that today’s technology companies seem to use that book as a to-do-list. Google, for example, has been pushing to provide personalised search results to its users, meaning that two people searching for the same term may now get different results, altered according to what they have clicked on before. In December 2009, Google tweaked its rules in such a way that even users who are not signed into Google—thus denying the search giant access to their previous search history—will see their results personalised too. Facebook is not far behind.

Admittedly, these developments are helpful to individuals—how could anyone use Facebook without hiding Farmville? But they counsel extreme epistemological modesty for anyone who would write about the effects of search engines on the public sphere. Alex Halavais notes in his book Search Engine Society that, “[i]n the process of ranking results, search engines effectively create winners and losers on the web as a whole.” But we have little idea who exactly those winners and losers are at the level of granularity that search engines can operate at.

The search engine’s role here reminds me of WalMart’s power to turn off individual registers around the US from its command center in Bentonville, or ConEd’s power to force certain buildings to turn down their air conditioning on hot days. Our products phone home, our iPhones can turn into iBricks if we annoy Steve Jobs, and cell phones can double as microphones. Everyone’s being profiled, and extraordinary power may well lie with the network that can put all those profiles together.

Internet cheerleaders encourage a generalized gratitude and wonder at all the new technologies can do for us. But we are light-years away from the institutions of accountability and auditing that are necessary for such attitudes to be reasonable. Admittedly, deficiencies in enterprise software and power supplies may keep the “infinite database” from ever being built, but is there any doubt it would be a dream-come-true for business and government? If it is built, existing doctrines of trade secrecy and state secrecy will make it very difficult to figure out how it is operating.

Heraclitus wrote that “for the waking there is one world, and it is common; but sleepers turn aside each one into a world of his own.” In our age of fragmented lifeworlds, narrowcasting, and personalization, internet searchers are increasingly like Heraclitus’s sleepers. They will increasingly consume customized media on the persons and events they take an interest in. Many will unwittingly enter a media environment shaped in ways they can’t understand. While some authors have lamented the effects of the “Daily Me” on politics, and others have noted the Kafkaesque implications of black box databases, few have considered the intersection of these trends. They threaten to make a scholarly understanding of media consumption difficult, as we have less and less objective sense of what’s really being presented as choices.

Image Credit: Bandido of Oz.

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