Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Stop Searching Start Questioning

Appearing before UC Irvine's Workshop on Networking Knowledge, Geert Lovink asked if "networked knowledge was possible," since it might be "almost a contradiction," because "networks are eroding institutionalized knowledge production." Lovink also used the occasion to express a strong preference for the terms "information" or "data," on the grounds that he was "always skeptical about knowledge" and considered "access to information not calling for knowledge" fundamentally more democratic.

His official topic was Google, which he introduced by showing his article on "The society of the query and the Googlization of our lives: A tribute to Joseph Weizenbaum." I teach Weizenbaum, who I think tends to be undervalued despite the continuing relevance of his work, in my digital rhetoric classes. For example, his ideas about the shortcomings of automation and distance medicine, his reservations about forming emotional attachments to computational media, and his skepticism about emulating natural language all ring true today.

Lovink argued that the time had come for critique of the search engine from scholars who work on Wikipedia, search engines, and information visualization, and that this research effort needs to involve artists, activists, and designers. (The title of this blog entry comes from one of Lovink's calls to action.) He pointed to the work of his colleague Ned Rossiter, whose work also appears in the wonderful Lovink-edited collection Reformatting Politics, as a scholar "dealing with inherent instability and decline." To give some pre-history about how this area of inquiry formed, Lovink explained "The November Proposal" and showed the website for the Forum on Quaero, a public think tank on the politics of the search engine.

In many ways, Lovink insisted that the best work could only be done by Americans to avoid the appearance of another "Brussels tribunal against Google" and skirt the "danger of resentment and anti-Americanism" in response to a cultural paradigm. He cited Siva Vaidhyanathan's work on "The Googlization of Everything" pre-book book as an obvious example, but also mentioned a number of other writers: Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch and the blog Rough Type, which includes a posting on "The Great Library of Googleplex," the blog of Alex Halavais at a thaumaturgical compendium, and the work of Michael Zimmer.

And yet, Lovink argued, we need to go even farther into exploring the theoretical ramification of "search as the predominant activity" in Internet use. He explained that search engines have "become that banal," like his own laptop on the kitchen table "there to answer questions." However, Lovink affirmed the need for "looking at search as a cultural practice of everyday life" from "the perspective of mentality." "Search engine research remains obscure," he claimed, because search is taken as an "unconscious part" of average people's activities, who can't see it as a "distinct field of study." Ironically, Lovink said, "the importance is growing, but the reflection upon it is really lagging behind." With groups like the World-Information Institute pursuing "deep search" and the rise of the semantic web, he warned that it could be easy to miss a "pertinent crisis of Google algorithm itself." He cautioned that we are ignoring our "dependence on search engines" at our peril, since we no longer maintain the older Internet practices of a "sophisticated culture of linking any more."

He also showed a remarkable document outlining the following specific areas of research: Information Culture, Media Literacy, Politics and regulation, Interface Design and Data Presentation, and Alternative Search. Knowing that UCI would be hosting a panel on open access later that week, he argued that those who were advocates for open access had to become advocates for open search as well, since otherwise search outcomes could still be manipulated by Google, thus holding materials away from view. He argued that this was hardly a pipe dream and compared it to open API or open source blogging software. However, he made it clear that he was not talking about projects like the now practically defunct EU counter search engine, which he described as "absolutely political" and a "funny European drama" involving France and Germany that remained a dream that was to be like Airbus. The attention, Lovink emphasized, should be on "protocols, agreements, standards," because there was a "need for bottom up" consensus that should include "alliances with librarians."

A nice write up from Julia Lupton is here.

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