critical context

The domestic web search engine is one of the defining technologies of our modern age, yet paradoxically it is one of our least evolved tools since its first inception. The below instances represent a substantive case for why we now urgently need to reimagine web search.


search is in stasis



Between 1998 - 2016 Google Search has barely evolved [1]. As Google is the worlds dominant search engine, neither have its competitors who mimick its success. Arguably, the only percievable changes Google have made to search have been iterative cosmetic changes to its logo, layout and a more sophisticated use of white space.

search is a black box technology
Dominant search engines are the very definition of a 'black box' [2] technology. We know the input (a search query) and output (the search results) but have no accruate knowledge of its internal workings or what drives this transformation from an input into an output.

search is biased



No technology is ever neutral or benign, conducting a simple Google Image search on the term 'beauty' [3] will illustrate this. Every technology comes coupled with trade-offs and biases. The trade-off we accept from algorithm driven search engines is an inherently biased rendering of reality hidden behind the mere perception of democracy and incomprehensible depth (which can never actually be accessed).

search is unaccountable
The objective results rendered by the algorithms powering search engines are currently subject to no due process, agreed moral or ethical conduct, regulations or governing laws [4]. Such unaccountability is unprecedented within a technology capable of significantly influencing elections, accounts of current affairs, societal norms, interpretations of scientific findings and consensus within public opinion [5].

search is 'gameable'



In December 2016 an investigation by The Guardian found that Google Search was subject to manipulation by rightwing entities able to 'game' the search autocomplete algorithms [6]. This gaming led to Google query autocomplete suggesting 'are jews.. evil' / 'are women.. evil' / 'Do blacks.. commit more crime'. The (technical/bad press) issue was quickly rectified by Google who released a statement outlining 'we acknowledge that autocomplete isn't an exact science and we're always working to improve our algorithms'. This gap between a perceived exact science and the reality of a non-exact science is ultimately fuelling our post-truth condition.

search is leading us into passive thinking

- The regrets of early internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock

When algorithms increasingly make decisions for us we become ever more reliant upon their powers of reasoning and less reliant upon our own [7]. We quickly become less vigilant, and then passive, in our judgement of the world around us. Our ability to practise critical thought, empathy, reflection and introspection (evolved over millennia) are now being radically diluted.

search is a vehicle for perception management
Search engines facilitate the strategic Perception Management [8] actions taken by information authors and distributors (political / brands / corporates / media / technological / other) to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to audiences in order to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning. Perception Management's ultimate intention results in behaviours and actions favorable to the originator's objectives.

search is overly simplistic
Larry Page, Google's co-founder once described the perfect search engine as a machine that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want." The critical issue with this notion is that it engineers out of reality all information and knowledge that we didn't mean but might still enlighten us, and edits out all that we don't want to hear but might need to hear.

search has disrupted the truth
Dominant search engines present millions of pluralist interpretations of meaning, yet the linear ordering of those interpretations simultaneously suggests that there might be a logic to their validity, that there might be a single objective truth to be found. This world view has contributed to the disruption of truth [9], a version of reality in which validity is established via algorithmically organised data drawn from volumes of links and visits rather than from verified facts and truths.

search is an extraction industry
Like fossil fuels, mining and quarrying the financial model currently sustaining internet search is that of an extraction industry. Rather than the physical materials of traditional extraction industries search extracts its users data and meta-data for monetisation fueled by advertising revenues.

search filters us into bubbles
Search algorithms operate by guiding their users into increasingly isolated 'filter bubbles'. These bubbles define what users like/are interested in inorder to mirror and feed the same type of content back to them. Such bubbles isolate us from ideas and views that might challenge or replace our current beliefs, rendering us (like search engines) in stasis as we are continually just served 'more of the same'.

1. source: https://archive.org/web
2. source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_box
3. source: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=beauty&source=lnms&tbm=isch
4. source: Make Algorithms Accountable, Julia Angwin, 2016
5. source: The New Mind Control, Robert Epstein, 2016
6. source: Google, democracy and the truth about internet search, Carole Cadwalladr
7. source: Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster, Tim Harford, 2016
8. source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perception_management
9. source: How technology disrupted the truth, Katharine Viner, 2016




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