A little cameo in “Search Engine Society”

Search Engine Society (Dec 2008)

My ex-professor/mentor Alex Halavais recently published a book which looks at how search engines impact our everyday lives. I’ve yet to receive my copy from Amazon, but here’s why I am reminded how exciting this topic is.

Entitled “Search Engine Society” (Dec 2008), Alex takes a much needed exploration of the social and cultural effects search engines have within the larger context of politics, culture and economics. Those of us who have experienced life in the early Internet era, would understand how how information-sensing online went through an incredible yet rapid evolution. From web rings, to online directories (e.g. the original Yahoo!), to complex search engine algorithms, every step of the way shapes the way we perceive information, and thus the perception of our environment.

Presently, the use of search engines becomes so second-nature, we might have forgotten and consequently fail to imagine how else information could possibly be sorted and made findable. As such, the more time we spend using these search engines, the greater the search engine’s influence on how we perceive the nature of our world. The way hyperlinks on search engines are ranked or censored, gamed or misdirected, all affect how we relate concepts to one another.

In his book, Alex Halavais runs the gamut of identity and society as mediated by search engines:

  • How have search engines changed the way we organize our thoughts about the world, and how we work?
  • What are the ‘search engine wars’, what do they portend for the future of search, and who wins or loses?
  • To what extent does political control of search engines, or the political influence of search engines, affect how they are used, misused, and regulated?
  • Does the search engine help shape our identities and interactions with others, and what implications does this have for privacy?

Incidentally, I made a little cameo in Alex’s book…
For your perusal, I’ve been given permission to share an excerpt from Chapter 8 under “Future Finding” (Page 185 on Amazon Search Inside):

Memory prosthetics

In the film Strange Days (1995) people entertain themselves by reliving the recorded experiences of others. By attaching electrodes to their head, everything they see and feel is recorded for later playback. Even without the brain interface this would necessitate, we are moving closer to the point where all ofour experiences are recorded, accumulated as a personal history. Already, our personal histories, as recorded on our home computers, are searchable by Google, and can be made available to the global collection of data. Those collections are growing much richer, drawing on new ways of recording our lives, and organizing that complexity is staggeringly difficult (Gemmell, Bell, & Lueder 2006).

Kevin Lim is one of many who are gradually becoming cyborgs, recording large portions of their lives. He wears a camera most days, recording his interactions with friends and strangers, while a GPS device tracks his progress through the world. Another camera sits on his desk, sending a live feed to the internet and recording his life from another angle. In this, Mr. Lim is different only in degree from the millions of people who keep public diaries of their everyday lives, and post photos and videos of their experiences. Already, this content makes up a sizable part of the web, and as “life logs” and other technologies for recording our existence grow, the data representing our everyday lives will grow with it.

Those recordings recall the Borges story in which a king orders a map at 1:1 scale to cover his entire country. A recording of our life is of very little value if we can only play it back at its original speed. The idea of a perfect memory is probably more attractive than the reality might be. Russian psychologist Aleksandr Luria (2006) describes the life of a man cursed by a perfect memory, and its crippling effects. Without the ability to easily edit memories of his life experiences, he loses the ability to distinguish events and interact with the world. The solution requires that we capture the moments that we wish to remember, and delete those moments that are best forgotten without too much intervention on our part. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes us a while to know which are which. Search engine technology will be called upon to help us find valuable information in this large data stream, filtering out the normal experience of our lives to extract the most salient features.

It is hard to say whether we want to have a recording of the first glance at our future spouse, or the last conversation we have with a friend before her death. Some things may be best left to our own memories, or just beyond them. But if we are to record our lives, we will want to have search engines that manage our memories in the ways that we want, and share them only when we want them to. We are still far from having the majority of our lives recorded, but automatic metadata and analysis of video and audio recordings remain particularly important.

Some folks have written elaborate reviews for Search Engine Society: Joris van Hoboken who writes about search engines and digital civil rights, as well as Shirley Niemans of New Media and Digital Culture at Utrecht University.

If you’re interested, Amazon has the paperback for around US$16.15. And yes, your Amazon purchase grants me some change towards developing my social cyborg project.