information society @ the crossroads, 3-7 june 2015

We’re happy that we got almost 20 papers for our panel “ICTs and power relations. Present dilemmas and future perspectives” (a panel I co-organize with my ITA colleagues Doris Allhutter & Stefan Strauss). Thanks to the conference organizers we’ll be able to put together two (maybe even three) sessions! YAY. We’ll go through all the abstracts in the next couple of weeks.. I’m already looking forward to that!

That’s the abstract I submitted. I hope it will make it through our tough review process! 😉 Comments & thoughts are highly welcome!!

Algorithmic Imaginaries. Visions and values in the co-production of search engine politics and Europe

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been described as transcending and transforming national borders, political regimes, and power relations. They have been envisioned as creating a global network society with hubs and links rather than cities and peripheries; “technological zones” (Barry 2006) rather than political territories. This reordering of distance and space was described as going hand in hand with processes of reordering social life. Such deep entanglements of technological and social arrangements have been coined as processes of co-production (Jasanoff 2005). While this “sociotechnical imaginary of the internet” (Felt 2014) was framed as all-encompassing and world-spanning at first, it is now increasingly seen as conflicting with the diversity of cultural, political, and social values on the ground. Accordingly, alternative interpretations of ICTs and their multiple socio-political implications have emerged over the past years.

Especially in the European context, tensions between US-American internet services, Google and its “algorithmic ideology” (Mager 2012, 2014) most importantly, and European visions and values may be observed. After the NSA scandal critical voices have become louder and louder; both in the policy and the public arena. Out of a sudden, issues like privacy, data protection, informational self-determination, and the right to be forgotten have been conceptualized as core European values (even though European secret services heavily surveilled its citizens too – arguable more intensely than the NSA in the British case). This shows that there is a European voice forming that aims at distancing and emancipating Europe from US-American tech companies and their business models based on user-targeted advertising and large-scale citizen surveillance. However, it further shows that there are tensions running through European countries and their national interests, identities and ideologies too. One reason is that Europe is neither a clear-cut, homogeneous entity, nor fixed and stable. In the context of biotechnology policy Jasanoff (2005: 10) argues: “Europe in particular is a multiply imagined community in the minds of the many actors who are struggling to institutionalize their particular versions of Europe, and how far national specificities should become submerged in a single European nationhood – economically, politically, ethically – remains far from settled.”

So how is Europe imagined in the context of search engine politics and how are search engines imagined in Europe? And how does the European imaginary relate to national visions and values of search engines? These are the main questions to be answered in the presented analysis by taking Austria as a case study. Analyzing European policy discourses the study examines how search engines – Google in particular – are imagined in the European policy context, what visions and values guide search engine politics, and how Europe is constructed in these narratives. Analyzing Austrian media debates the project investigates how the European imaginary is translated into and transformed in the Austrian context, how Google is portrayed in these debates, and what national specificities shape the narratives. A particular focus is put on the ongoing negotiation of the European data protection reform since this is a central arena where search engines (and other data processing technologies like social media etc) and the European identity are co-constructed these days, but also a site where European disparities, national interests, and local value-systems are at stake. Using a discourse analytical approach and the concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries” (Jasanoff and Kim 2009) this study will give insights in the way ICTs and Europe are co-produced, but also what tensions and contradictions appear between the European imaginary and national interests. While European policy documents try to speak with one voice, the Austrian media shows more nuanced stories of power relations, struggles, and friction that open up the view on the fragility of the European identity when it comes to sensitive, value-laden areas like search engine politics.

Google is a particularly interesting technology in this respect since Google was one of the first US-American tech companies that came under scrutiny in the European context. In 2010 Google tried to launch its street view service on the European market. Rather than euphorically embracing the service, however, European citizens, NGOs, and policy makers went on the barricades and started protesting against Google cars in various cities and regions. An Austrian farmer, for example, sparked media publicity by attacking a Google car with a pickaxe. After Google’s illegal scraping of open WiFi data Google cars were banned from Austrian streets for some time (not surprisingly the service was continued later on after Google accepted some restrictions). While the street view debate was the first one that had values like privacy and data protection at its core, the issue was handled nationally back then. Every European country took different actions according to their stance towards the service (varying from unrestricted acceptance in some countries to (initial) blockage in others).

Despite these differences among European countries (or also because of them), a European vision – a European “algorithmic imaginary” – started to form in the aftermath of the street view debate. While it was only a silent voice at first, it grew into a stronger message that took its written form in the first draft of the European data protection reform that was launched in early 2012. Since then various actors tried to force their interests into the legislative text – most prominently the US-American IT industry, but also European NGOs and national stakeholders; some of them started lobbying even before the European Commission presented its very first draft. These heavy negotiations show how important this piece of text is for multinational actors doing business on the European market. Even though the reform is far from being finished, the judgment of the “right to be forgotten” that forced Google to obey European law may be seen as a first step towards putting the European imaginary into practice. The Austrian media frames this case as a success in showing US-American IT companies like Google that making business on the European market requires obeying European law. Looking more closely and integrating national visions and values into the analysis, however, indicates how fragile the European imaginary still is, and what tensions and contradictions it faces when being translated into national and local contexts. It shows that Europe tries to speak with a strong voice when addressing other countries and continents, the US most importantly, but how weak its voice becomes when it is confronted with itself. The ongoing reform of the data protection reform offers particularly rich materials to trace this dynamic. It is an arena where search engines, business models, and algorithmic logics are negotiated, but also an arena where Europe is forming and falling apart – both at the same time.

So if our information society is at the crossroads, as stated in the conference abstract, we need to understand tight entanglements between technological and social arrangements before taking the next junction. Only when (re)grounding global ICTs in specific socio-political contexts alternative routes may be taken towards more democratic, more sustainable, and more culturally sensitive network technologies (whether this requires stricter regulations of US-American technologies or developing alternative “European” services, or both, remains to be seen). What we may learn from the geopolitics of search engines in terms of global power relations, European identity construction, and concepts of nationhood will be finally discussed.

The  research  presented  in  this  paper  is supported by the Jubilee Fund of  the Austrian National Bank (OeNB), project number 14702.


Barry, A. (2006) Technological Zones. European Journal of Social Theory 9(2): 239-253.

Felt, U. (forthcoming) Sociotechnical imaginaries of “the internet”, digital health information and the making of citizen patients, to appear in Hilgartner S., Miller, C., and Hagendijk, R.: Science and Democracy: Making Knowledge and Making Power in the Biosciences and Beyond, London/ New York: Routledge.

Jasanoff, S. (2005) Designs on Nature. Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.

Jasanoff, S. and S. Kim (2009) Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea, Minerva 47(2): 119-146.

Mager, A. (2012) Algorithmic Ideology. How capitalist society shapes search engines, Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 769-787.

Mager, A. (2014) Defining Algorithmic Ideology: Using Ideology Critique to Scrutinize Corporate Search Engines, Triple C. Cognition, Communication and Co-Operation 12(1).

more to read

What a nice start of the day: The sun is out (after days of rain). A nice cup of coffee & a package on my desk from De Gruyter. It’s the brand new edited volume:

I’m really looking forward to reading it since it not only contains contributions on search engine use and the filter bubble, but also articles on the regulation of search engines and alternative tools; issues I’m dealing with in my current project too. Thank you Birgit Stark, Pascal JĂŒrgens et al. for putting together such a great volume!

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 😉 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 RenĂ© König & 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..

defining algorithmic ideology

This was an awesome publication process! I submitted the article in 2012, just before Liam was born. Assuming the review process would take forever, as it usually does, I thought submitting the paper before giving birth is very clever. Unexpectedly the reviews were back even before the child arrived. However, as I was pretty busy since then I resubmitted the paper only one week ago. What happened then was really amazing. I sent back the article on February 11, 5.05pm. I got the letter of acceptance from the editor, Christian Fuchs, at 10.57pm. The paper was edited, layouted and published the next day, February 12, 12.02am. This is very exceptional!!! And very satisfying too :) There is nothing more tiring than time periods of months and years between the date of acceptance and the date of publication. So I really like to thank Christian for this speedy handling of my paper! & I highly recommend publishing in his journal TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique!!! (Besides, what other journal recommends listening to a “non-commercial indie rock-online radio station” on its homepage?)..

Here’s the abstract and link to my article “Defining Algorithmic Ideology: Using Ideology Critique to Scrutinize Corporate Search Engines”:

This article conceptualizes “algorithmic ideology” as a valuable tool to understand and critique corporate search engines in the context of wider socio-political developments. Drawing on critical theory it shows how capitalist value-systems manifest in search technology, how they spread through algorithmic logics and how they are stabilized in society. Following philosophers like Althusser, Marx and Gramsci it elaborates how content providers and users contribute to Google’s capital accumulation cycle and exploitation schemes that come along with it. In line with contemporary mass media and neoliberal politics they appear to be fostering capitalism and its “commodity fetishism” (Marx). It further reveals that the capitalist hegemony has to be constantly negotiated and renewed. This dynamic notion of ideology opens up the view for moments of struggle and counter-actions. “Organic intellectuals” (Gramsci) can play a central role in challenging powerful actors like Google and their algorithmic ideology. To pave the way towards more democratic information technology, however, requires more than single organic intellectuals. Additional obstacles need to be conquered, as I finally discuss.

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, RenĂ© König & 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)

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 RenĂ© König, who was also involved in the conference planning. Thanks RenĂ©, I hope to see you in Amsterdam!

vor google

On the 9th of April the book “Vor Google. Eine Mediengeschichte der Suchmaschine im analogen Zeitalter” will be presented and discussed in the Wienbibliothek im Rathaus (in German). The book is edited by Thomas Brandstetter, Thomas HĂŒbel & Anton Tantner and contains a number of essays on “analogue search engines” including bible citation indexes, state calendars of the 18th century and their hierarchical system, newspaper comptoirs, servants as crucial information centers, Vannevar Bush’s Memex and the politics of bibliometrics.

Since I’ll be giving a short review of the book and participate in the round table discussion (along with Jana Herwig and Stefan Zahlmann) I’m currently reading through the book.
The impression I immediately got while flipping through the pages is that thinking about search engines and their predecessors from a historic angle adds great value to common search engine research. Some of the past issues – e.g. how to organize indexes, the politics of search – still haunt present-day search tools, while others have only recently been introduced – e.g. the commercial dimension of search engines and the exploitation of user data. All in all there’s much to learn from juxtaposing contemporary and past search engines!

If you wanna participate in this exciting endevour please join us on the 9th of April, 7pm, Lesesaal der Wienbibliothek im Rathaus, Eingang Lichtenfelsgasse 2, Stiege 6 (Lift), 1. Stock, 1010 Wien. (= sounds complicated, but will hopefully be doable 😉 )

Here’s the book outline from the Wienbibliothek Website, where you can find more information:

Ein Alltag ohne digitale Suchmaschinen ist heute nur noch schwer vorstellbar. Dabei lassen sich zahlreiche Einrichtungen, Personen und Techniken ausmachen, die lange vor Google und Co Ă€hnliche Funktionen ĂŒbernommen haben – StaatshandbĂŒcher und Diener etwa, aber auch Bibliothekskataloge, Fragebögen oder Zeitungskomptoire. Welche strukturellen Ähnlichkeiten gibt es zwischen diesen frĂŒheren und den heutigen Suchmaschinen? Welche Utopien knĂŒpften sich an die Suchmaschinen des analogen Zeitalters? Welche Formen von Kontrolle ermöglichten sie? Das vorgestellte Buch widmet sich diesen und weiteren Fragen und liefert damit nicht nur neue Erkenntnisse ĂŒber die Medien der Vergangenheit, sondern vertieft auch die Analysen der gegenwĂ€rtigen medialen Lage.

Technoscientific Promotion and Biofuel Policy

Jenny Eklöf and I have been collaborating on a project during my HUMlab fellowship (2010-2012). Our study investigated how the biofuel controversy plays out in the Swedish press and Google search results. The results will be published in the journal Media, Culture & Society (mid of next year). The exact phrasing of the editor goes like this:

“It will be several issues, and certainly several months, before your piece is prepared for publication and the proofs sent on to you. Please do not contact us for a specified issue number and date until 5 months or so after this note of acceptance.”

Well, if you don’t want to wait that long please let us know and we’ll send you a copy!

That’s the abstract:

What are the conditions for the public understanding of biofuels and how do the media shape these conditions under the influence of a new production of knowledge? This article investigates how the biofuel controversy plays out in the Swedish press and Google search engine results and analyses winners and losers in the tight attention economy of contemporary media. It describes different visibility strategies biofuel stakeholders employ in both media arenas, and identifies a form of technoscientific promotion that hybrid actors use to succeed in the day-to- day struggle for media attention. To conclude, it raises broader societal questions of the contemporary blurring of knowledge boundaries and the emergence of new information hierarchies and their biases. By understanding how contemporary media shape controversies, we can address the democratic potential of both mass media and science.

ÖAW topic of the month: ICTs

Each month the Austrian Academy of Sciences defines and discusses a “topic of the month”. The current issue deals with new communication technologies and presents three ITA projects. Besides my own project “Glocal Search“, the EU projects “Value Ageing” and “European Perspectives on Cloud Computing and Social Networks” are featured. The ÖAW portraits of the projects can be found online or in the paper magazine “Thema Forschung” (October). Enjoy reading!