www.nettime.org
Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Review on David Gugerli's book "Search Engines. The World as a
Dennis Deicke on Tue, 16 Jun 2009 22:10:15 +0200 (CEST)


[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Review on David Gugerli's book "Search Engines. The World as a Database"


See also here: http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/query/


A new view on old search engines

Reiview of Gugerli, D. (2009). Suchmaschinen. Die Welt als Datenbank.
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

By Dennis Deicke

In his book Search Engines, The World as a Database (Suchmaschinen, Die Welt
als Datenbank) the Swiss historian of technology David Gugerli describes the
forerunners of Internet search engines in the second half of the 20th
century exemplified by four different case studies. He starts with the
examination of two German television shows, which Gugerli considers as early
forms of search engines that were providing certain functions demanded for
by the society. Furthermore, the author analyses the methods invented by the
German BKA (The German Federal Criminal Police Office) in the early 1970âs.
Gugerli then explains the development of search engines using the idea of
the relational data bank invented by Edgar F. Codd in 1969.

In the introduction Gugerli depicts the ubiquity of the search engine Google
and all its additional services. Then he reminds the reader that before
Google there have been different sorts of search engines that worked outside
of the Internet. The detection of earthquake-zones or low-pressure systems
for example was executed by satellites, sensors and simulations. Superstars
and scandals were detected by TV-stations. Managers searched for information
in corporate data bases, which were not open to everyone. Gugerli mentions
that every type of search engine is situated in an area of conflict, between
overview and surveillance. The author explains that search engines are
connected with hopes concerning democratization, informational emancipation
and complete overview. Contradictory they are also linked with fears
regarding the vision of an Orwellian state of permanent observation. Gugerli
identifies four functions that all search engines have in common. First of
all, search engines premise that the aims of their operation can be
objectified. Secondly, search engines operate in a concrete room of
addresses. Search engines can only work, if they can link the searched
object with an address. Thirdly, search engines follow a certain pattern,
from which they cannot divert, but they simultaneously show a fundamental
openness for results. Fourthly, search engines feature a special proximity
to games and simulations.

The first case-study taken into consideration by David Gugerli is the old
German TV-show: âWas bin ich?â (What am I?), that had been aired between
1961- the year Gugerli was born -   and 1989 and hosted by Robert Lembke.
The game-idea of the show was to let the audience guess which profession
attendant persons in the show had. These persons had to display four
characteristics of themselves at the beginning of the show: a signature,
stating whether they are employed or self-employed, gesturing a situation
typical of their job and selecting the color of a piggybank. During this
procession the profession of the person was revealed to the TV-audience. A
team composed of four (more or less) famous persons, who used these four
different inputs to find out the personâs job. They asked questions that
could only be answered with âYesâ or âNoâ, and for every âNoâ the candidate
received five DM (Deutsche Mark), which were put into a piggybank, whose
color has been selected before. âWas bin ich?â had been a very successful
TV-show for almost 30 years. David Gugerli identifies an interesting reason
for this success. He argues that in Germany people demanded for reliability
of expectations, the audience had a desire for the certainty that
professions and people could be linked. The structure of the show offered a
method which was able to conjoin professions with persons exemplarily.
Gugerli labels this possibility of linking jobs and persons as normal and
therefore concludes that âWas bin ich?â was a search engine seeking the
ânormalâ in German society. In a next traceable step Gugerli classifies this
desire for reliability into the historic context in Germany. After World War
II people searched for a new identity because the old structures of
identification had vanished. Gugerli concludes that âWas bin ich?â supported
this process of self-discovery. It showed that the profession was a stable
attribute of a person that could be discovered by using the simple mechanism
of the show. Later on the society changed but the show stayed the same for
almost 30 years and absorbed the complexity which had emerged because of
social alteration beginning in the 60âs. The mechanism of the show reduced
the question for individual identity to what someone was, not who and in
this way objectified the question.

The second case-study the professor at the Technical University Zurich (ETH
ZÃrich) uses for illustration is the German TV-show âAktenzeichen XY ...
ungelÃstâ. The show went on the air in October 1967 and was hosted by Eduard
Zimmermann. In the show Zimmermann presented unsolved criminal cases which
were re-enacted by performers. After a shown clip, the host talked to an
expert of the police to give additional information to the audience. People
sitting in front of the TVs were then requested to provide the police with
relevant information. In this manner the show tried to find a delinquent
based on the criminal practice and the traces of the crime. The consequence
of this procedure was the reliability of expectations concerning the
deviant, the aim of the search was connecting criminal work and the
associated delinquent and to link his position with an address. In contrast
to âWas bin ich?â this show did not provide the audience with an image of
the normal but with an image of the deviant. âWas bin Ich?â was a search
engine looking for the normal in society, while âAktenzeichen XYâ was
searching for the opposite, the deviant. And this is where Gugerli detects
the entertaining potential of the show, by searching the deviant the show
stabilized the amusing distinction between normal and abnomral. In the show
the searched criminal did not fall under the presumption of innocence
anymore, the show put everyone under general suspicion. The audience built a
giant living network that provided information like a data bank with the
advantage that it did not need to be fed with information by the police and
Zimmermann before. The show objectified by considering cases and files, then
it subjectified the cases again by re-enacting them with actors. After this
simulation of the audience being witness of the crime, it was objectified
again by the police expert who provided additional and real details
regarding the case.

As the third case-study exemplifying the function of a search engine David
Gugerli selected the methods of the BKA (Federal Criminal Police office)
that were invented when the new BKA-president Horst Herold started his work
in 1971. Herold built up a giant computer data base system containing all
information that had been collected by the german police. Using this
background Herold created a search engine that should find statistically
attestable patterns of the deviant. These results were supposed to serve as
arguments for the prevention of crime and were the background for flexible
manpower planning. Repression should be substituted by prevention,
contention by dynamics, command by control, experience by logics and
hypothesis by prognosis. Allocation of police resources followed the results
of the analysis and the patterns that had been found out and were adapted
flexibly. But in contrast to Zimmermann and Lembke, Herold himself had to
create the bases for his search engine: He transformed information on papers
into electronic data, facts were linked with addresses and were retrievable
constantly. This data could be combined and compared and in this way opened
new forms of criminological research, e.g. it was possible to search for
âall 19 year old bakers with a Swabian dialectâ. Furthermore Heroldâs search
engine became omnipresent and connected all police stations and reduced the
distance between the central and the periphery, the system intelligence
moved from the centre to the periphere elements. In the end the data base of
the BKA was connected with international networks so that there was access
to the German data from the whole world. To enable operating of the search
engine the BKA implement different steps of objectifying the data. A
fingerprint for example was at first captured as a photo, then it was
enlarged and its characteristics were fixed as mathematical expressions and
saved as a file in the data base. The idea of searching for patterns of
social deviant behaviour, to take preventive actions which should substitute
the search for the delinquent, was based on substantial objectifying of
traces and characteristics of delinquents. Thus an attribute drifting from
the norm could result in a decisive information for the police. This system
depended on a giant amount on information and therefore started to stagnate
because channels of information were overloaded. After describing explicitly
how Herlodâs âcybernetic policeâ worked, Gugerli explains that the idea of a
âcybernetic controlled, failure-free societyâ failed because of the masses
of information the system had to deal with. The terror of the RAF during the
1970âs legitimized and stabilized the work of Heroldâs Engine until the
resources of the system were exhausted.

The last example that is pointed out by David Gugerli concerns the
relational data bank as it has been imagined by Edgar F. Codd in 1969 and
has more to do with the type of search engine we are used to. His aim was to
create a data base which allowed to combine all files with each other and to
investigate all kinds of possible connections between them. Coddâs main idea
was that users of future data bases do not have to possess special knowledge
to use the data base. In fact it was his view that people have to be
protected from depending on knowledge in regards to the internal
organisation and functionality of the data in which they are interested.
Until Coddâs time hierarchical data banks had predefined ways of gaining
access to the information which they had stored. Hence new kinds of
questions were only possible if the user was informed about the
saving-structures of the data base he or she wanted to consult. By changing
this, Codd expected the users to become more specialized in asking, while
the people programming the data base were assuring a reliably operating
system. This gave people the opportunity to use the data bank as a black box
which they could ask whatever they wanted to. Consequently, the use of the
search engine changed from seeking for certain items to an open query for
results. Together with his employer IBM, Codd developed the project âSystem
Râ which was the attempt to form a data base usable even for people with
less knowledge about computers. To facilitate this, they invented the
âStructured English Query Languageâ (SEQUEL) which enabled an easier way of
querying. In mind they had the idea of a manager who needs information to
take a decision independent of his knowledge about programming and data
banks. This new type of search turned the computer to an important economic
search engine that could be used as an instrument for rationalization. The
relational data bases helped the companies to reduce transaction costs and
to expand the possibilities of combining resources because it lowered the
investment necessary for analysis. In Germany these ideas resulted in an
alteration of the culture regarding the usage of data bases, now it was
possible to query in real time and users and data were separated through a
default software. 

In the end of his book Gugerli points out that western societies of the 20th
century are characterized by flexibilization of expectations and the
situational recombination of resources. For him, these attributes have been
supported by search engines. They made it possible to locate addressable
objects and increased the possibilities to access these objects. In this
part Gugerli comes to the main issues of this book and he states that search
engines produce overviews, determine priorities and create differences
between the things they include and things they exclude. Furthermore,
Gugerli gives a logic reason why search engines have a political history. It
is because they contain the userâs attention by having a certain structure
of data rooms, programs and presentation of results.

David Gugerliâs book opens up a new view on the work of old search engines.
We usually think of internet search Engines like Google but he reminds us
that the process of searching has been an important task in the society
before the emergence of the internet. By picking the examples he
demonstrates the development of search engines and successfully creates a
historical room for reflections what has been his intention. The detailed
descriptions of the characteristics of each search engine provided by
Gugerli facilitate the understanding of how the examples functioned as
search engines in their temporal and social context. The examples and
explanations given by Gugerli help to consider the nowadays omnipresent
Internet search engine differentiated and help to understand how search
engines have become an essential base of our modern society.

Information about David Gugerli:
http://www.tg.ethz.ch/forschung/mitarbeiter/DavidGugerli.htm


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org