This essay will explore the influence of search engines on the history of communications and information management, examining the extent to which specific parties control this space. In doing so, this essay will assess precisely who it is that benefits from the transformative effects of search engines for socio-political and socio-cultural perspective. Particular attention will be given to Google, the world’s most popular search engine (Chris, 2016), and how their dominance has led to problematic dynamics of control.
How does the search engine work
Search engines are platforms designed to allow users to locate content on the Internet, operating as portals to the seemingly limitless collection of files that now make up what we consider to be the Web. In searching an infinite filing system, one needs a means by which they can locate what they are looking for, and search engines first emerged as a response to this requirement. The purpose of search engines, then, can be reduced to a very simple concept: they are designed to “organize the world’s information” (Stross, 2009, p. 1). This is, according to Stross, precisely what Google sought to do when the company was first founded in 1998 (2009, p. 1), but Google was far from the first of its kind, it is simply the dominant product in a space offering a range of alternatives.
The accolade for being the world’s first search engine is largely attributed to the WHOIS database, launched in the 1980s as a directory service for ARPANET users (White et al., 1982). As consumer electronics and the Web became more ubiquitous, an increasing number of search engines started to emerge, leading to Archie, a 1990 release that is typically considered by media historians to be the first search engine to facilitate content searches. Developed by students based at McGill University, Archie was a marked improvement on the WHOIS database in that the latter was merely a directory, whereas the former offered a means through which users could find independently located files from across the Web by using relevant terms (Shedden, 2014).
The Development of Search engine
The 1990s might be considered the age of the search engine, with Archie succeeded by a host of similar tools. It was during this decade that some of the major platforms—some of which are still in operation today—first emerged, including, as already noted, Google, but also Lycos, Yahoo, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, and MSN Search. However crowded the marketplace might once have been, Google now dominates the world of search engine business. Such is the company’s dominance of the medium, that google has entered the wider vernacular as a verb: if you want to search for something, you “google it”, a shift in popular language that has been formally recognised by the American Dialect Society (Stross, 2009, p. 1).
The socio-cultural and economic benefits of search engines are quite evident: in the information era, it would be impossible for individuals and organisations to sort through the infoglut that occupies the Web were it not for some intuitive search mechanism. Search engines facilitate the increasingly important transaction between content creator and receiver, ensuring that data circulated on the Web can find an audience appropriate to its consumption. In this sense, the search engine can be seen as the vehicle that has driven the emergence of contemporary media communications and information management: managing the volume of data that exists at present would not be possible in a directory service. By crawling and storing information on the Web’s content, search engines allow users to sort through chaos in an efficient manner that does not require the manual sorting of datastores (Jawadekar, 2010, p. 278).
Issues regarding search engines
The reality of search engines is not entirely positive, however, and scholars have long queried the socio-cultural and socio-political repercussions of the dominance of platforms like Google—such questions arise from the acceptance that all search engines will contain biases, meaning that search engines “raise not merely technical issues but also political ones” (Introna et al., 2000, p. 169). The issue is that the developers of search engines need to make a choice on how their search algorithms will function, and such decisions have profound consequences for the ways in which society operates: if information is not displayed on Google, that information is essentially rendered obsolete as far as its social utility is concerned. Accepting that content has little purpose without an audience, one must ensure that their data conforms to any requirements dictated by Google. This reality, largely driven by the economic concerns of companies like Google, means that search engines, designed to allow people to gain access to the content of the Web, are ironically one of the greatest barriers that that very information. Introna and Nissenbaum argue that such biases “lead to a narrowing of the Web’s functioning in society, run counter to the basic architecture of the Web as well as to the values and ideals that have fueled widespread support for its growth and development” (Introna et al., 2000, p. 169).
In her seminal text, Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble contends organisations like Google “control the record” because “privacy and identity ownership are constructed within a commercial web space” (Noble, 2018, p. 129). Thus, the majority of people who do use the Web are giving up a major element of their digital freedom to Google, allowing this US-based commercial firm to control this vitally important aspect of their digital selves. Jaron Lanier addresses this in Who Owns the Future?, suggesting throughout the book that our acceptance of such algorithms means that, as we only advance further into the digital age, we will forego more and more freedoms for the sake of access to information (Lanier, 2014, p. 123).
Noble argues that our quiet acceptance of such conditions has led to a strengthening of institutionalised racism, what she terms “algorithmic oppression” (2018, p. 4). Noble draws attention to everyday racism on the Web, and how search engines justify ease of access to such materials as freedom of choice, but her main focus is on algorithmic reinforcement, on criticising organisations like Google which willingly profit from the aggregation of content that is racist and sexist: “This process reflects a corporate logic of either willful neglect or a profit imperative that makes money from racism and sexism” (2018, p. 4). Thus, while search engines have had a transformative impact on society at large, there are many drawbacks to their continued dominance, and the fact that systems like Google have been allowed to develop and become societally dominant without any real challenge to their biases.
Such is the prevalence of this issue that political leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have begun questioning the influence of search engines on contemporary communications, information management, and indeed, society: “Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information”, she has previously remarked (Halavais, 2017, n.p.). Despite this political awareness, companies like Google have been allowed to develop their business practices unchecked. The issue of transparency to which Merkel refers is connected to the profit-motive of Google: their algorithm lacks transparency because it is their product, and if everyone knew their recipe, they would simply copy it. As long as there is a tension between commercial and social interests, such challenges will remain unresolved.
Despite this, Google’s algorithm, however secret and however detrimental to the wellbeing of everyone in society, has also brought about positive transformations, particularly in relation to how it is that we access information. The great difference between Google and its competitors is that the results of Google searches present organic, as opposed to inorganic findings: in essence, platforms like Yahoo provide results in a directory fashion, listing content based on a pay-for-position model. Google, conversely, allows data to speak for itself, listing materials based on their machine-calculated “relevance” a user’s search terms. The principle behind this approach has always been clear: “The only way to scale their systems to handle all of the world’s information was automating all processes” (Stross, 2009, p. 66). Google then, is a space where information is transacted between creator and audience with little, if any, human intervention.
This shift in how search engines work has transformed media communications and information management from a human-led manual process to an automated alternative. Technically, the latter is the far more flexible approach and theoretically more suited to an age wherein exponentially higher volumes of data are created on a daily basis. However, the eradication of human intervention has led to the sorts of biases already addressed, while also leading the creation of Web-based content that has been formed specifically to meet the demands of Google’s search processes. Such a system is utterly homogenising, in that all content creators must now be conscious of Google’s frameworks should they be successful in finding an audience for whatever it is that they are sharing: the “virtues of sharing”, as they are known (Stross, 2009, p. 106), are more ideals than they are realities. These ideals, notions of openness and community, while a major part of the discourse on media communications, occur within the confines of Google’s constraints: it is one thing to speak of sharing, it is another to do so in a fashion acceptable to Google.
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