This preprint of a paper I have written about a year and a half ago, entitled Institutionalizing without Institutions? Web 2.0 and the Conundrum of Democracy, is the direct result of what I experienced as a major cultural destabilization. Born in Austria, living in France (and soon the Netherlands), and working in a field that has a strong connection with American culture and scholarship, I had the feeling that debates about the political potential of the Internet were strongly structured along national lines. I called this moral preprocessing.
This paper, which will appear in an anthology on Internet governance later this year, is my attempt to argue that it is not only technology which poses serious challenges, but rather the elusive and difficult concept of democracy. My impression was – and still is – that the latter term is too often used too easily and without enough attention paid to the fundamental contradictions and tensions that characterize this concept.
Instead of asking whether or not the Internet is a force of democratization, I wanted to show that this term, democratization, is complicated, puzzling, and full of conflict: a conundrum.
Published as: B. Rieder (2012). Institutionalizing without institutions? Web 2.0 and the conundrum of democracy. In F. Massit-Folléa, C. Méadel & L. Monnoyer-Smith (Eds.), Normative experience in internet politics (Collection Sciences sociales) (pp. 157-186). Paris: Transvalor-Presses des Mines.
Over the last couple of weeks, things have heated up considerably for Google – on the mobile side with the start of a patent war, but also in the search area, the core of the company’s business. Led by Senator Mike Lee (a Utah Republican), the US Senate’s Antitrust Subcommittee has started to probe into certain aspects of Google’s ranking mechanisms and potential cases of abuse and manipulation.
In a hearing on Wednesday, Lee confronted Eric Schmidt with accusations of tampering with results and the evidence the Senator presented was in fact very interesting because it raises the question of how to show or even prove that a highly complex algorithmic procedure “has been tampered with”. As you can see in this video, a scatter-plot from an “independent study” that compares the search ranking for three price comparison sites (Nextag, Pricegrabber, and Shopper) with Google Price Search using 650 shopping related queries. What we can see on the graph is that while there is considerable variation in ranking for the competitors (a site shows up first for one query and way down for another), Google’s site seems to consistently stick to place three. Lee makes this astounding difference the core of his argument and directly asks Schmidt: “These results are in fact the result of the same algorithm as the rankings for the other comparison sites?” The answer is interesting in itself as Schmidt argues that Google’s service is not a product comparison site but a “product site” and that the study basically compares apples to oranges (“they are different animals”). Lee then homes in on the “uncanny” statistical regularity and says “I don’t know whether you call this a separate algorithm or whether you’re reverse engineered a single algorithm, but either way, you’ve cooked it!” to which Schmidt replies “I can assure you that we haven’t cooked anything.”
According to this LA Times article, Schmidt’s testimony did not satisfy the senators and there’s open talk about bias and conflict of interest. I would like to add to add three things here:
1) The debate shows a real mismatch between 20th century concepts of both bias and technology and the 21st century challenge to both of these question that comes in the form of Google. For the senator, bias is something very blatant and obvious, a malicious individual going to the server room at night, tempering with the machinery, transforming the pure technological objectivity into travesty by inserting a line of code that puts Google to third place most of the time. The problem with this view is of course that it makes a clear and strong distinction between a “biased” and an “unbiased” algorithm and clearly misses the point that every ranking procedure implies a bias. If Schmidt says “We haven’t cooked anything!”, who has written the algorithm? If it comes to an audit of Google’s code, I am certain that no “smoking gun” in the form of a primitive and obvious “manipulation” will be found. If Google wants to favor its own services, there are much more subtle and efficient ways to do so – the company does have the best SEO team one could possibly imagine after all. There is simply no need to “cook” anything if you are the one who specifies the features of the algorithm.
2) The research method applied in the mentioned study however is really quite interesting and I am curious to see how far the Senate committee will be able to take the argument. The statistical regularity shown is certainly astounding and if the hearings attain a deeper level of technological expertise, Google may be forced to detail a significant portion of its ranking procedures to show how something like this can happen. It would, of course, be extremely simple to break the pattern by introducing some random element that does not affect the average rank but adds variation. That’s also the reason why I think that Lee’s argument will ultimately fizzle.
3) The core of the problem, I would argue, is not so much the question of manipulation but the fact that by branching into more and more commercial areas, Google finds itself in a market configuration where conflicts of interest are popping up everywhere they turn. As both a search business and an actor on many of the markets that are, at least in part, ordered by the visibility layering in search results, there is a fundamental and structural problem that cannot be solved by any kind of imagined technical neutrality. Even if there is no “in house SEO” going on, the mere fact that Google search prominently links to other company services could already be seen as problematic. In a sense, Senator Lee’s argument actually creates a potentially useful “way out”: if there is no evil line of code written in the dark of night, no “smoking gun”, then everything is fine. The systematic conflict of interest persists however, and I do not believe that more subtle forms of bias towards Google services could be proven or even be seriously debated in a court of law. This level of technicality, I would argue, is no longer (fully) in reach for this kind of causal demonstration. Not so much because of the complexity of the algorithms, but rather because the “state” of the machine includes the full structure of the dataset it is working on, which means the full index in this case. To understand what Google’s algorithms actually do, looking at these algorithms without the data is no longer enough. And the data is big. Very big.
As you can see, I am quite pessimistic about the possibility to bring the kind of argumentation presented by Senator Lee to a real conclusion. If the case against Microsoft is an indicator, I would argue that this pessimism is warranted.
I do believe that we need to concentrate much more on the principal conflicts of interest rather than actual cases of abuse that may be simply too difficult to prove. The fundamental question is really how far a search company that controls such a large portion of the global market should be allowed to be active in other markets. And, really, should a single company control the search market in the first place? Limiting the very potential for abuse is, in my view, the road that legislators and regulators should take, rather than picking a fight over technological issues that they simply cannot win in the long run.
EDIT: Google has compiled its own Guide to the Hearing. Interesting.
While riding my bike today, I listened to a very thought-provoking and enjoyable talk (LSE site / YouTube) given back in may at the LSE by Harvard law professor Gerald Frug, entitled “The Architecture of Governance”. The argument basically revolves around the actual “design” or “architecture” of governance/government structures and, more precisely, the complicated relationship between local and central governments. While this is not a talk about technology, there is much to learn concerning how to think about the design of (political) systems – mechanisms for organizing collective decision-making – beyond the petty moralizing and finger-pointing that seems to have taken hold of large parts of public debate today in much of the Western world. What I find quite intriguing is that Krug pays so much attention to the particularities of how seemingly consensual ideas (“power to the local”) can be implemented with rather different potential outcomes. In that sense, “parameter details” and fine-print may have a much larger impact than one might think and it’s worth-while to talk about them and not just the grand questions of “participation” vs. “representation”, and so on. Good fun!
There are a couple of interesting examples and ideas in there and the analogy between finance algorithms and the larger processing of “culture” is well argued. A fun 15 minutes – there’s even explosions in there!
While scholars often underline their commitment to non-deterministic conceptions of “effects”, models of causality in the human and social sciences can still be a bit simplistic sometimes. But a more subtle approach to causality would have to concede that, while most often cumulative and contradictory, lines of causation can sometimes be quite straightforward. Just consider this example from Commensuration as a Social Process, a great text from 1998 by Espeland and Stevens:
Faculty at a well-regarded liberal arts college recently received unexpected, generous raises. Some, concerned over the disparity between their comfortable salaries and those of the college’s arguably underpaid staff, offered to share their raises with staff members. Their offers were rejected by administrators, who explained that their raises were ‘not about them.’ Faculty salaries are one criterion magazines use to rank colleges. (p.313)
This is a rather direct effect of ranking techniques on something very tangible, namely salary. But the relative straightforwardness of the example also highlights a bifurcation of effects: faculty gets paid more, staff less. The specific construction of the ranking mechanism in question therefore produces social segmentation. Or does it simply reinforce the existing segmentation between faculty and staff that lead college evaluators to construct the indicators the way they did in the first place? Well, there goes the simplicity…
Simondon’s Du mode d’existence des objets techniques from 1958 is a most wondrous book. It is not only Simondon’s theory of technology in itself that fascinates me, but rather the intimate closeness with particular technical objects that resonates through the whole text and marks a fundamental break with the greek heritage of thinking about technology as a unified and coherent force. When Simondon reasons over numerous pages on the difference between a diode and a triode, he accords significance to something that was considered insignificant by virtually every philosopher in history. By conferring a sense of dignity to technology, a certain profoundness, he is able to see heterogeneity and particularity where others before him just saw the declinations of the singular principle of techné. In a distinctly beautiful passage, Simondon argues that “technological thinking” itself is not totalizing but fragmenting:
“L’élément, dans la pensée technique, est plus stable, mieux connu, et en quelque manière plus parfait que l’ensemble ; il est réellement un objet, alors que l’ensemble reste toujours dans une certaine mesure inhérent au monde. La pensée religieuse trouve l’équilibre inverse : pour elle, c’est la totalité qui est plus stable, plus forte, plus valable que l’élément.” (Simondon 1958, p. 175)
And my translation:
“In technological thinking, it is the element that is more stable, better known and – in a certain sense – more perfect than the whole; it is truly an object, whereas the whole always stays inherent to the world to a certain extend. Religious thinking finds the opposite balance: here, it is the whole that is more stable, stronger, and more valid than the element.”
Philosophical thinking, according to Simondon, should strive to situate itself in the interval that separates the two approaches, technological thinking and religious thinking, concept and idea, plurality and totality, a posteriori and a priori. Here, the question of How? is not subordinate to the question of Why? because it is the former that connects us to the world that we inhabit as physical beings. Understanding technology means understanding how the two levels relate and constitute a world. There are two forms of ethics and two forms of knowledge that must be combined both intellectually and practically. Simondon obviously strives to do just that. I would argue that Philip Agre’s concept of critical technical practice is another attempt at pretty much the same challenge.
In the beginning, it was all about the algorithm. PageRank and its “no humans involved” mantra dominated Google since its inception. In recent years however, Google has started to expand the role of “conceptual” knowledge in different areas of its services. The main search bar and its capacity to do all kinds of little tricks is a good example, but I was really quite astounded how seamless concept integration has become on my last trip to Google Translate: