Category Archives: society oriented design

A couple of days ago, Marissa Mayer, VP of  “Search Products & User Experience” over at Google posted a piece on “the future of search” and her conclusion is this:

So what’s our straightforward definition of the ideal search engine? Your best friend with instant access to all the world’s facts and a photographic memory of everything you’ve seen and know. That search engine could tailor answers to you based on your preferences, your existing knowledge and the best available information; it could ask for clarification and present the answers in whatever setting or media worked best.

It’s from Google’s official blog so everybody and the Denver Broncos (keyword used solely to scramble the document vector of this post) has already commented on it but here’s my 50 centimes.

The first thing that strikes me about Mayer’s definition of the ideal search engine is the “your best friend” thing. Why would I want to be friends with a search engine? This goes very much in the direction of “don’t be evil”, Google’s famous corporate motto, which is, in my view, based on the (erroneous) believe that questions of power can be reduced to questions of morals. “Your best friend” could mean that the search engine will know a lot about you but it will not tell your boss that you search for pr0n on a daily basis. If you live in China it might tell the authorities where you’re at but a friend would too, given the right incentive. The idea is that you can confide in your best friend, spill your dirty little secrets without having to fear that they will pop up somewhere on the blogosphere. So there’s the privacy issue and Mayer is suggesting that you can trust Google with the growing pool of data you leave in their (floating!) datacenters.

The second matter is more subtle and kind of revitalizes all the critique that has been written concerning Nicholas Negroponte’s idea of the “daily me”, most notably the concept of the “echo chamber” which holds that personalization results in people getting exposed only to the views that they already agree with. I am not sure whether such a situation is imminent, in fact, I agree with much of what David Weinberger says in this article, but given the fact that search has become such a pervasive practice, one cannot easily dismiss it. My real problem though is that personalization has become the dominant direction of search engine evolution when there are so many different paths to go down. Mayer actually talks about one:

Yet our presentation is still very linear (the results are just a list) and even (no one result is more important or larger than the next). What if the results page began to transform radically to really harness these different types of results into something that felt much more like an answer rather than just 10 independent guesses?

I find the idea of making the results page smarter very intriguing but not the conclusion of making it more “like an answer”. Why not add semantic clustering along the lines of Clusty, why not add the possibility to easily weight search terms or to better interact with the search results? I find the idea of rendering everything always more convenient and less of an effort quite troubling indeed. Why is there no button to the really useful cheat sheet on the main page? Has the idea of educating users become so completely unthinkable? I’d prefer to have more control over ranking and better means to refine my search and organize my results than a new best friend. Google has all the ingredients for delivering potentially great semantic mapping that would not give definite answers but a better overview of the heterogeneity of search results. Unfortunately, the idea of personalization seems to completely overshadow the more enlightened concept of augmentation.

A couple of weeks ago, Google released App Engine a Web hosting platform that makes the company’s extensive knowledge in datacenter technology available to the general public. The service is free for the moment (including 500MB in data storage and a quite generous contingent in CPU cycles) but there is a commercial service in preparation. Apps use Google Passport Google’s account system for user identification and are currently limited to (lovely) Python as programming language. I don’t want to write about the usual Google über alles matter but kind of restate an idea I proposed in a paper in 2005. When criticizing search engine companies, authors generally demand more inclusive search algorithms, less commercial results, transparent ranking algorithms or non-commercial alternatives to the dominant service(s). This is all very important but I fear that a) there cannot be search without bias, b) transparency would not reduce the commercial coloring of search results, and c) open source efforts would have difficulties mustering the support on the hardware and datacenter front to provide services to billions of users and effectively take on the big players. In 2005 I suggested the following:

Instead of trying to mechanize equality, we should obligate search engine companies to perform a much less ambiguous public service by demanding that they grant access to their indexes and server farms. If users have no choice but to place confidence in search engines, why not ask these corporations to return the trust by allowing users to create their own search mechanisms? This would give the public the possibility to develop search algorithms that do not focus on commercial interest: search techniques that build on criteria that render commercial hijacking very difficult. Lately we have seen some action to promote more user participation and control, but the measures undertaken are not going very far. From a technical point of view, it would be easy for the big players to propose programming frameworks that allow writing safe code for execution in their server environment; the conceptual layers already are modules and replacing one search (or representation) module with another should not be a problem. The open source movement as part of the civil society has already proven it’s capabilities in various fields and where control is impossible, choice might be the only answer. To counter complete fragmentation and provide orientation, we could imagine that respected civic organizations like the FSF endorse specific proposals from the chaotic field of search algorithms that would emerge. In France, television networks have to invest a percentage of their revenue in cinema, why not make search engine companies dedicate a percentage of their computer power to algorithms written by the public? This would provide the necessary processing capabilities to civil society without endangering the business model of those companies; they could still place advertising and even keep their own search algorithms a secret. But there would be alternatives – alternative (noncommercial) viewpoints and hierarchies – to choose from.

I believe that the Google App Engine could be the technical basis for what could be called the Google Search Sandbox, a hosting platform equipped with either an API to the company’s vast indexes or even something as simple as a means to change weights for parameters in the existing set of algorithms. A simple JSON input like {“shop”:”-1″, “checkout”:”-1″,”price”:”-1″,”cart”:”-1″,”bestseller”:”-1″} could be enough to e.g. eliminate amazon pages from the result list. SEOing for these scripts would be difficult because there would be many different varieties (one of the first would be – we aim to displease! no useful results guaranteed!). It is of course not in Google’s best interest to implement something like this because many scripts might direct users away from commercial pages using AdSense, the foundation of the company’s revenue stream. But this is why we have governments. Hoping for or even legislating more transparency and “inclusive” search might be less effective than people wish. I demand access to the index!

Oliver Ertzscheid’s blog recently had an interesting post (French) pointing to a couple of articles and comments on The Facebook, among which an article at the LA Times’ entitled “The Facebook Revolution“. One paragraph in there really stands out:

Boiled down, it goes like this: Humans get their information from two places — from mainstream media or some other centralized organization such as a church, and from their network of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. We’ve already digitized the first. Almost every news organization has a website now. What Zuckerberg is trying to do with Facebook is digitize the second.

This quote very much reminds me of some of the issues discussed in the “Digital Formations” volume edited by Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen in 2005. In their introduction (available online) they coin the (unpronounceable and therefore probably doomed) term “sociodigitization” by distinguishing it from “digitization”:

The qualifier “socio” is added to distinguish from the process of content conversion, the broader process whereby activities and their histories in a social domain are drawn up into the digital codes, databases, images, and text that constitute the substance of a digital formation. As the various chapters below show, such drawing up can be a function of deliberate planning and reflexive ordering or of contingent and discrete interactions and activities. In this respect as well, sociodigitization differs from digitization: what is rendered in digital form is not only information and artifacts but also logics of social organization, interaction, and space as discussed above.

Facebook, then, is quite plainly an example for the explicit (socio-)digitization of social relations that were mediated quite differently in the past. The “network of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues” that is now recreated inside of the system has of course been relying on technical (and digital) means of communication and interaction for quite a while, and these media did play a role in shaping the relations they helped sustain. There is no need to cite McLuhan to understand that relating to distant friends and family by mail or telephone will influence the way these relations are lived and how they evolve. Being rather stable dispositifs, the specific logics of individual media (their affordances) were largely covered up by habitualization (cf. Berger & Luckmann1967, p.53); it is the high speed of software development on the Web that makes the “rendering of logics of social organization, interaction, and space” so much more visible. In that sense, what started out as media theory is quickly becoming software theory or the theory of ICT. There is, of course, a strong affiliation with Lawrence Lessig’s thoughts about computer code (now in v. 2.0) and its ability to function as both constraint and incentive, shaping human behavior in a fashion comparable to law, morals, and the market.

The important matter seems to be the understanding of how sociodigitization proceeds in the context of the current explosion of Web-based software applications that is set to (re)mediate a great number of everyday practices. While media theory in the tradition of McLuhan has strived to identify the invariant core, the ontological essence of individual media, such an endeavor seems futile when it comes to software, whose prime caracteristic is malleability. This forces us to concentrate the analysis of “system properties” (i.e. the specific and local logic of sociodigitization) on individual platforms or, at best, categories of applications. When looking at Facebook, this means analyzing the actual forms the process of digitization leads to as well as the technical and cultural methods involved. How do I build and grow my network? What are the forms of interaction the system proposes? Who controls data structure, visibility, and perpetuity? What are the possibilities for building associations and what types of public do they give rise to?

In the context of my own work, I ask myself how we can formulate the cultural, ethical, and political dimension of systems like Facebook as matters of design, and not only on a descriptive level, but on the level of design methodology and guidelines. The critical analysis of social network sites and the cultural phenomena that emerge around them is, of course, essential but shouldn’t there be more debate of how such systems should work? What would a social network look like that is explicitly build on the grounds of a political theory of democracy? Is such a think even thinkable?