Amy Alexander on Tue, 8 Jul 2003 05:51:14 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> googological digest [hwang, douwe]

On Mon, 7 Jul 2003, Francis Hwang wrote:

> I don't think I've ever read anything anywhere to suggest that Google 
> hypes PageRank as a "neutral" algorithm. I see words like, say, 
> "democratic" on a page like, but 
> then, democratic is hardly a neutral value. 

right, it's not one, but it is used as one. to me, that entire page seems 
to try to give the impression that the rankings are done by neutral 
technology, unfettered by human biases. look at 

Google's complex, automated methods make human tampering with our results 
extremely difficult. And though we do run relevant ads above and next to 
our results, Google does not sell placement within the results themselves 
(i.e., no one can buy a higher PageRank). A Google search is an easy, 
honest and objective way to find high-quality websites with information 
relevant to your search. "

for an overly simple example of what's wrong with this:
search google for "microsoft."
now search for "microsoft sucks", "microsoft censorship" or "microsoft 

note that the original results are weighted toward information put out by 
microsoft about themselves. is this objective, high-quality, important 
information as google claims? (see cue p. doll's old "cuejack" project for 
one response to that.)

> -- and there is no perfect way to resolve all these tensions. Asking 
> for a neutral search engine algorithm is a fruitless endeavor, the 
> online equivalent of counting the number of angels on the head of a pin.

i'm not asking for one. in fact my point was, there *is* no neutral 
software, there are no neutral algorithms, at least in a situation with 
any degree of complexity at all. however, this needs to be identified and 
recognized by a larger segment of the public. right now, as bad as things 
are with cnn/fox-news/etc, there's still a reasonable amount of skepticism 
about them - chomsky-esque criticism of tv/newspapers/etc has been around 
awhile...  but there's very little public skepticism or even reflection 
about google results.  

> to people making compilers." One of the implications of this is that 
> the decisions you have to make when designing such software are just as 
> political as technical. This applies quite well, I think, to Google. 
> PageRank is inherently political. That's not because Google is some 
> great overarching hegemony (yet). It's because Google's task -- 
> prioritizing some webpages at the expense of others -- is an inherently 
> political task.

absolutely. well actually i do think google has reached overarching 
hegemony levels, and that's why i think this is important. but the rest of 
this is exactly my point - algorithms are political and biased - even in 
situations where the software is not overtly social, but that's a separate 
discussion. however, while this all may seem obvious to us, there's not 
much public awareness of it. and beyond just awareness, how to respond?  
there are alternative search engines being developed that
work from more of a grassroots level (grub, e.g. - ... but 
will those be truly "alternative" or produce more of the same? 
> So there's some hugely dominant search engine out there, and its 
> decisions are subjective and political. Should we be nervous about 
> that? It doesn't really worry me. I can't imagine what an impartial 
> search engine would even look like. 

there won't ever be one, just like there won't be impartial newspapers and 
tv news... but will there be indymedia-like search engines? or some other 
approaches? or will we continue to have a web-media system where there's 
essentially one, centralized meta-source, obviously biased towards big 
corporate sites and others who can "figure out the game", and everyone 
just accepts that?

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