I’m so (so so so) happy that my project “Algorithmic imaginaries. Visions and values in the shaping of search engines” will finally come true! After a really long application process the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) decided to fund this awesome habilitation project! You’ll find the abstract below; more information will follow once the project has started (November 2016 since I’m still on maternity leave). For all of you who have projects under review (or rejected already): don’t give up! It’s a nerv-wrecking process, but if you finally manage to succeed, it’s all worth it!!! (Of course, in times like these peer review has become some sort of strage academic lottery, which does not make the practice any better..)

Algorithmic imaginaries.
Visions and values in the shaping of search engines

Search engines like Google are developed in the US-American context, but are used around the globe. Their business models are based on user-targeted advertising. They collect user data, turn it into user profiles, and sell them to advertising clients. Since the NSA affair practices of user profiling are critically discussed; especially in European contexts with diverse data protection laws, historically shaped notions of privacy, and very different tax systems. The ongoing reform of the EU data protection legislation is an important arena where tensions between global search engines and European policy visions and values can be observed. Besides, European search engines emerge that aim to provide users with alternative styles of search. Some are explicitly developed as a European competitor to US-based search engines (Quaero or Independent Web Index). Others are developed in Europe, but draw on other value-systems to distinguish themselves from big search engines, such as respecting users’ privacy (e.g. Ixquick), protecting the environment (e.g. Ecosia), or creating a non-commercial search engine owned by the public (e.g. YaCy).

This poses important questions: What motivations, value-systems, and visions guide the development of European search engines? How are these imaginations translated into sociotechnical design practices? What power struggles, negotiations, and compromises may be observed? How do place and cultural context matter in the design process? Researchers in Science and Technology Studies (STS) investigated the politics of search engines, the relevance of algorithms, and internet governance. What is missing is an in-depth analysis of the shaping of search engines in specific cultural contexts and the role shared value systems and visions play in it. Rooted in the discipline of STS the suggested habilitation project will fill in this gap by investigating design practices of European search projects using a case-study approach (qualitative interviews, workshops, ethnographic observations).

Results from this analysis will be compared to and cross-analyzed with results from my past research on capitalist ideologies driving global search engines like Google and my present research on visions and values guiding European search engine governance. This overall analysis will result in a typology of algorithmic imaginaries, which describes visions and values in the development and governance of search engines in global, European, and local contexts. It will show how search technologies and society co-emerge in specific economic, political, and cultural settings. The primary focus on European contexts is a particular strength of the project since tensions between global search engines and European governance structures and search projects are growing, but have not been systematically studied yet, both in the field of STS and internet research.

STS graz & SOTQ reader

This week I spent two sunny days in Graz to attend the STS conference “Critical Issues in Science and Technology Studies”. Doris Allhutter and I organized a panel on the “politics of ICTs”, which turned out to be really interesting! Great presentations, great topics, great participants. Also, we discovered quite a number of overlapping issues and shared interests, which is not always the case with regard to conference panels. I particularly liked the presentations on the material/ technological dimension of ideology and gender relations, sociotechnical/ digital work practices and cultural specificities, and questions on power relations in design practices of ICTs. Anne Dippel struggling with computer problems while talking about bugs in the CERN software and how they affect physicists’ work practices was just one highlight of our panel ūüėČ I still hope Doris and I will manage to put together a special issue on the fascinating co-emergence of social and digital cultures.

The second highlight of the week was the arrival of the Society of the Query Reader (eds Ren√© K√∂nig & Miriam Rasch; Institute of Network Cultures (INC) reader #9). It’s great to see my contribution on big search and its alternatives in such a nicely designed book. Didn’t the conference designers even get an award for the beautiful flyers, badges and stuff? Anyway, the reader is a wonderful compilation of essays on corporate search engines and alternative styles of search. If interested, you can order or download the book for free (!) more information here..

google & alternative search

A preprint of my Society of the Query #2 article has been published in the ITA manu:scripts series. The article is related to the talk I gave at the SOTQ conference in Amsterdam, November 2013. It’s concerned with the ideology of Google and alternative search engines. A final version of the paper will be published in the Society of the Query Reader edited by Ren√© K√∂nig and Miriam Rasch (Geert Lovink as editor of the Institute of Network Cultures (INC) Reader series; spring 2014). I’d like to thank the conference participants, Georg Aichholzer as editor of the ITA manu:scripts series, and both the reviewers of the INC reader and the ITA manu:scripts for their helpful comments and feedback. That’s the abstract:

Google has been blamed for its de facto monopolistic position on the search engine market, its exploitation of user data, its privacy violations, and, most recently, for possible collaborations with the US-American National Security Agency (NSA). However, blaming Google is not enough, as I suggest in this article. Rather than being ready-made, Google and its ‚Äėalgorithmic ideology‚Äô are constantly negotiated in society. Drawing on my previous work I show how the ‚Äėnew spirit of capitalism‚Äô gets inscribed in Google‚Äôs technical Gestalt by way of social practices. Furthermore, I look at alternative search engines through the lens of ideology. Focusing on search projects like DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, YaCy and Wolfram|Alpha I exemplify that there are multiple ideologies at work. There are search engines that carry democratic values, the green ideology, the belief in the commons, and those that subject themselves to the scientific paradigm. In daily practice, however, the capitalist ideology appears to be hegemonic since 1) most users employ Google rather than alternative search engines, 2) a number of small search projects enter strategic alliances with big, commercial players, and 3) choosing a true alternative would require not only awareness and a certain amount of technical know-how, but also effort and patience on the part of users, as I finally discuss.

That’s the link to the full article. I would love to hear what you think about it!

society of the query #2

The society of the query conference (Amsterdam) has sadly come to an end. It was a truly great event! Thanks to Geert Lovink, Ren√© K√∂nig & Miriam Rasch for having made it happen! For all of you who missed the exciting discussions on the Google domination, search beyond borders (China, India etc.), artistic projects, search in context, the dark side of Google, or the filter bubble: there’s quite some material circulating online, e.g. abstracts to all sessions & talks, blog posts of all talks, links to alternative search engines, loads of pictures, and, finally, there should be videos of all talks coming up soon, so stay tuned! & here they are!

I was in the Google domination session btw together with Dirk Lewandowski, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and René König (moderator); talking about big search and its alternatives, which was fun :)

Society of the Query #2

photo credits: society of the query (Martin Risseeuw)

momentum13. technology & regulation

Last week I had the pleasure to take part in the Momentum13 symposium. Momentum is a conference series that aims at bridging the gap between the sciences and politics. Initiated by the EU politician Josef Weidenholzer and Barbara Blaha its main purpose is to integrate critical research, leftwing politics and practical experience to think about issues such as “progress”, the motto of this year’s conference. The 3-day event was organized in tracks focussing on various topics including gender equality, social movements, arts & culture, the future of work and politics, and technology & regulation – the track I moderated together with fukami; partly on a huge terrace by the lake with a decent glass of wine.. thanks for that! :)

In our track we had heated debates on small technical details such as internet ports and exploit regulations and big societal questions relating to privacy, democracy and the future of the internet. But these two aspects, of course, closely relate to one another. Seemingly small technical decisions on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a particular piece of code have largescale political consequences in terms of IT security and the stability of infrastructure we’re using day by day. And vice versa, broad societal developments and power relations influence the construction of information technology and the way the internet looks today. In a capitalist age for-profit companies like Google, for example, figure as central driving force in terms of technology development. The integration of more and more services in the web browser, for example, results in a black-boxing of technology. The less you understand your tools, the more dependent you are on their creators. Or, as fukami put it: “If you can’t break it, you don’t own it”.

This, however, causes a couple of questions: Do we all need to learn programming to use the computer? (or how else would we be able to “break it”?) Or isn’t it the role of politics and law to set limits where limits are needed (e.g. data protection and the exploitation of user data by big US-American companies) and to protect us from harmful technology? Or is that an illusion in post 9/11 societies where extensive surveillance has become a central interest not only of companies, but also of nation states around the globe? And what can we do about all that? How can we regulate Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies that increasingly shape our information universe, social relations, and political discourses, as we’ve seen in our track in presentations on Twitter politics and data journalism? What role can technology funding play in regard to the steering of information technology? How can we make legal practices more transparent or measure – and promote – open data strategies; or “open everything”? What kind of copyright is feasible in times of file-sharing platforms and how can data protection be secured in companies aiming at full-scale observation of employees? How can we manage risks? Those types of questions were discussed in our track. However, those are also the types of questions that future decision-making processes in the field of technology and society will be concerned with. Negotiations of the new EU data¬† protection law, for example, will serve as an interesting test case for future technology development and socio-political agendas. How this negotiation process will end remains to be seen. That both lobbying on parts of internet businesses and the NSA scandal will be crucially influencing the reform process seems to be clear by now. Or, to cite fukami again, “we should thank Snowden” since his leaks have not only shaken up civil society, but EU policymakers too (hopefully!).

Our track discussions were accompanied by good food and great evening events, such as the keynote by Robert Pfaller or the book-reading by Kathrin Passig. Unfortunately, I missed the huge party that took place Saturday night and the Sunday evening matinee. But I’m sure that was fun too! Next year’s conference will be focused on “emancipation”. I highly recommend going there! (and not only because of the scenic location). More information can be found on the Momentum website (including info on the journals Momentum Quarterly and Momentum Policy Paper).

society of the query

I’m happy to announce that the Institute of Network Cultures will be hosting another Society of the Query event in Amsterdam, November 7-8 2013. I’m even happier that they asked me to present some of my search engine work there :)

For those who haven’t heard of the Society of the Query events yet, I recommend their collaborative research blog on search. The blog was originally initiated in the course of various search engine events including Society of the Query 1, Amsterdam 2009, and the Deep Search conferences in Vienna, 2008 & 2010. It was – just recently – re-activated by Ren√© K√∂nig, who was also involved in the conference planning. Thanks Ren√©, I hope to see you in Amsterdam!

Ghostery & more

Last week I attended the Unlike Us conference in lovely Amsterdam. The event, aimed at bringing together researchers, activists and artists concerned with Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives, was covered pretty well by bloggers on site, as you can see here. Instead of repeating their work by blogging about the whole event, I just want to point you to a single tool I learned about: Ghostery.

Ghostery helps you tracking the trackers and gain back control over your privacy. “Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity.” It’s a browser plug-in (for various browsers) that shows you the invisible web – tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons that are included on web pages in order to get an idea of your online behavior – and helps you to block and/ or manage them. Instead of passively running in the background, the app brings them to the foreground, and hence puts you in the active position of handling them. You should really check it out, it’s the best privacy tool I’ve seen in a really long time!!!

Besides, it was very interesting to see Max Schrems talking about Facebook vs. Europe. He’s an Austrian law student, but pretty professional in what he does. I hope he manages to bring Facebook to its knees! Blogpost on his talk here.

Finally, I attended the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) conference ‚ÄúInterdisciplinary Insights on the Social Science of Digital Research‚ÄĚ, where I talked about the Performative Character of Digital Methods (see blog post below). It was a great event, which covered a range of digital methods and their ethical implications. I particularly enjoyed seeing Mike Thelwall talking about his network mapping tools since I’ve read about his work for quite some time now.

unlike us #2 amsterdam

And yet another pretty cool event I’ll attend in March (8-10); without presenting though. It’s the second event of the Unlike Us Network initiated by Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures/HvA, Amsterdam) and Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Limassol). It’s supposed to bring together artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers who work on ‚Äėalternatives in social media‚Äô. That’s how the event is described on the network cultures institute website:

Unlike Us 2 will focus on the concept of free exchange and the commercial exploitation of online social relationships which lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism. In addition to speakers addressing this theme a range of alternative social media projects will be showcased. Facebook makes everyone believe There Is No Alternative, but Unlike Us dares to differ. – I’m curious about that!

Confirmed speakers and presenters: David M. Berry (UK), Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius (NL), Philipp Budka (AT), Thomas Chenesau (FR), Jodi Dean (USA), Carolin Gerlitz (UK), Seda Guerses (TR/BE), Spideralex (ES), Anne Helmond (NL), Eva Illouz (IL), Walter Langelaar (NL), Ganaele Langlois (CA), Carlo v. Loesch/lynx (DE), Caroline Nevejan (NL), Arnold Roosendaal (NL), Eleanor Saitta (USA), Max Schrems (AT), Elijah Sparrow (USA) and James Vasile (USA).

goodtosee #2: Scroogle & more

In the last couple of months I have done extensive interviews with 17 people more or less directly involved in the social construction of search engines. The interviewees ranged from search engine engineers, people working in information retrieval, search engine optimizers, content providers and marketers, but also proponents from the broader societal context including policy makers, jurists, activists, journalists, and critical internet scholars – from the German and US-American context. All these people shared and discussed their different viewpoints on search engines with me. The material I’ve only recently started to analyze looks extremely interesting – thanks to all of them! First insights will be presented next week at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand/ Johannesburg! :)

For now, I’d like to share some kind of by-product of these interviews with you: the landscape of search engines my interview partners depicted. Independently from their heterogeneous standpoints and backgrounds they all drew a pretty similar picture. It may best be described with the term “Googlepoly”, which was coined by Pasquinelli in the book “Deep Search” (which I highly recommend by the way!).

All of my interview partners described Google as THE actor on the market, the “monopolist” or “oligopolist”. Some of them further referred to Microsoft’s Bing – who bought Yahoo just recently – as a possible future competitor, while others doubt that. Further, ASK was mentioned from time to time. But what search engines exist apart from these big, highly commercial players? Are there alternatives out there?

Having been asked about the broader landscape of search engines my interviewees drew a more complex picture, I’d like to share (and strengthen) here:

Besides the commercial search tools there is a great variety of search engines differing in size, use, and purpose. First of all there are meta-search engines, which basically use search results from both commercial tools and alternative technologies. SEARCH3, for example, enables users to compare search results from Google, Bing, and Twitter (?) to get a broader picture of search results. The German search engine METAGER uses results from BING/ YAHOO and small search engines specializing in certain thematic fields. These search technologies have the primary purpose to broaden the users’ perspective and to display search results without advertising.

Similarly, other search tools draw on/ use/ exploit big commercial players and their algorithms. Especially the so-called “green” search engines have become popular in this respect. ECOSIA, for example, describes itself as a “social business dedicated to environmental sustainability via the donation of revenue to the world‚Äôs most effective rainforest protection programs”. Within broader debates on climate change ECOSIA & co. claim to donate parts of its advertising revenue to WWF’s work in the rain forest. The fact that ECOSIA is powered by the BING/ YAHOO complex and employs its search algorithm, however, limits its “green” purpose drastically since ECOSIA – and all the other green search engines – use the same computer power and create the same CO2 emission as BING, GOOGLE or any other search engine.

Further, SCROOGLE is an interesting and humorous initiative. SCROOGLE basically exploits GOOGLE through using its algorithm, while protecting users’ privacy through encrypting users’ data. It makes their search query anonymous so to say (and makes fun of Google through displaying all kinds of comics, pictures etc.). Similarly, the meta-search engine IXQUICK, known as STARTPAGE in the US, is dedicated to protect the users’ privacy. Contrary to SCROOGLE it has its own algorithm and follows a quite elaborated business philosophy and policy.

In addition to these universal search engines there is a range of special interest search tools such as the Blog search engine TECHNORATI, the language search tool LINGUEE (German-English), BASE dedicated to search scientific documents, or WOLFRAM ALPHA, which aims at making “systematic” and “expert-level” knowledge accessible to the broader public. While it has its media hype at the beginning, there is not much said about WOLFRAM ALPHA anymore – most probably because it works best with mathemetic formulas, which are not amongst the top¬† search queries according to trend graphs. Further, the peer-to-peer search engine YACI may be seen as a real alternative to commercial, top-down search companies. YACI is a de-centralized search engine that wants to “achieve freedom of information through a free, distributed web search which is powered by the world’s users”.

Finally, there are European initiatives to challenge US-based companies such as the French search engine QUAERO and the German search technology THESEUS. Both of them received funding from the public sector and the EU and both of them did not take off yet, quite on the contrary. Recently, another European initiative, EUROPEANA, aiming at ordering “Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage”, has been introduced. Maybe this one will succeed in introducing a competitive European search engine, you never know.

Most of my interview partners further referred to social media such as FACEBOOK or TWITTER as potential competitors on the search market. Whether GOOGLE & co. manage to integrate more social data into their searches or whether they’ll be outpaced by social networks and their recommendation system remains to be seen in the future. One interview partner described it as a “battle between man and machine”.

This rich repertoire of search technologies – plus the ones I haven’t talked about here – shows that there are indeed alternatives to the “Googlepoly” out there. Whether your goal is to save your private data, to get more diverse search results, to create a more “green IT”, to take part in developing a de-centralized search, or to just escape Google for once: It might be worth trying one of the search technologies depicted above, just to see what it’s like outside the Googleverse.