Patrice Riemens on Mon, 13 Apr 2009 18:47:04 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Ippolita Colective, The Dark Side of Google Chapter 7 (part 2)

NB this book and translation are published under Creative Commons
license 2.0 (Attribution, Non Commercial, Share Alike).
Commercial distribution requires the authorisation of the copyright
holders: Ippolita Collective and Feltrinelli Editore, Milano (.it)

Ippolita Collective

The Dark Side of Google (continued)

Chapter 7 Technocracy (part 2)

Miracles of technology: from subjective opinions to objective truth.

It is amidst such a gigantic data base that the 'good giant' Google
appears in the landscape with a message for us: we are part of a yet
unheard of "global electronic democracy"; the results of PageRank[TM] are
correct since they spring forth from a direct democracy, as expressed by
the links validated by Google's algorithms, which reinstitute us, in a
certain sense, in our rights to 'open it up'.

Epistemologically speaking, however, popularity can never been
acknowledged as a test for 'objective quality'. Because if that is the
case, then the concept itself of objectivity would be based on an unstated
assumption, viz. that a mass of subjective ideas (the 'opinions' expressed
by way of links) would somehow, as if by magic, be transformed in their
exact opposite (in this case, a 'revealed' objective truth) by the sheer
virtue of its number passing the majority threshold. This is {exactly} how
ranking becomes a token of quality, since it is the explicit outcome of a
technology based on the manipulation of information.

But how can quantity ever become quality? One assumes, but without
admitting so much explicitly, that the technical mediation of the
algorithm is {in itself} a guarantee of 'objectivity', and one associates
to this objectivity the qualitative characteristic of 'good', {then} of
'best', and {finally, that} of 'true'. And all this has to be rendered
fast, nay, immediate, and transparent, thanks to the annihilation of the
time factor and the ergonomic sophistication of the interface.

The consensus creation mechanism Google considers as the manifestation of
'direct democracy' by users~voters does not convince, for two main
reasons: first, it presumes that the majority is always right, and then,
it implies that the majority opinions must necessarily go through a
technological mediation to {really} benefit users. Yet how that precisely
works is never explained properly.

The dichotomy between what is objective and what is subjective,
superimposed on the concepts of truth vs. opinions, is totally
inappropriate in the world of networks. Science, has always created
nature-culture hybrids for the sake of exactitude, meaning that it has
invented techniques and fostered technologies. On the one hand,
observation and experiments take 'nature' as their field of endeavour, and
it is in that sense that they can be considered 'objective'; on the other
hand, the results obtained are highly subjective because science operates
under influence of individual will and political and social perception;
this as science is mediated through language (even though it is the
language of scientific communication) and because science is also a source
of power (up to and including the atomic bomb).

The technology that drives networks is the current application of the
scientific method creating "nature-culture hybrids', which amounts to
umpteenth scientific objects presenting themselves as ever more fiable
tokens of reality, en lieu and place of human beings [*N1]. The
technological hybrid that is PageRank[TM]'s verdict is henceforth more
valid than anyone else's opinion, and Google's result carry more weight
than the view on an expert in the matter. Was it only because
PageRank[TM]'s advice is always one click away - unlike the expert's.

As we stated in the introduction, the Internet is a 'natural' phenomenon
after all. It is a  material object, made up of mechanical and electronic
machines; and at the same time, it is a cultural phenomenon, because it
would not exist without the meaning that culture has assigned to it, which
is constituted by meaningful interaction between human actors, or, {to be
more precise} between biological underling and electronic machines
underling, and between both of them. The hybrid character of networks is
the {necessary} consequence of of the hybrid character of the technology

Another possible viewpoint on the issue of subjectivity vs. objectivity is
about the decision-making model: how to decide what is relevant? It is
easy to assume, in a relativistic context, that an information is
'objective' when it comes from a site (or a blog, or from Google, or from
an official source) if this value judgement {itself} is the outcome of
clear assumptions, of a transparent process, and of a limited, localised
viewpoint. A network based on trust, that is a group of people who share
information, opinions and knowledge in a general sense, readily discloses
its working methods, its hierarchy if there is one, and the conditions {it
imposes}  to become member of its network or project. Every time one
checks out the answers given by such a trust network, one can read these
answers as 'objective' in the sense of 'true' _for and in that network_,
relevant as regard to its experience, and that precisely because they are
the outcome of as many different subjectivities and of a strong
interaction /between the members of that network/. If one feels to be in
agreement with that community, one could then consider the information
relevant, or one could also dismiss it in favor of other trusted networks.

Following this approach, and if Google was prepared to disclose publicly
its decision-making mechanism, and if Internet users were able to
understand that much, then the objective vs. subjective issue could easily
be set aside. One would empathise step by step, search after search, with
the network that would please us most, and be able to directly influence
it, in keeping with our tastes and preferences, our ideas, and our
idiosyncrasies - {in one word} in accordance to who we are.

Public sphere and private sphere

PageRank[TM] illustrates another dichotomy: the one between the public and
the private sphere.  In effect, everything that passes through Google is
made public: who didn't find private e-mails amidst the ranking's returns,
maybe because they were send {by error} to a public mailing list? Now that
an ever increasing mass of personal information transits through Google -
and IT carriers in general - the possibility of one's phone calls
(channeled through VoIP for instance) being archived and made retrievable
by way of a search engines no longer appears so distant. One could say
that technology also manages to 'hybridise' public and private sphere: and
anyway, to connect /to the Internet/ means to open up to the world, and
once we have opened up, it is the world that opens itself up in our lives.

There are already networks which maintain practices that defeat any
illusion of objective information. They make up for themselves, in a
deliberate, precise, and totally subjective way, what they want to make
public and what they wish to keep private. This phenomenon takes its full
signification when a search engine turns out to be unable to honour a
query whose specified quality is greater than the qualitative availability
and proposed technical [infra?]structure. [excuse me? I think this simply
means 'when the search engine gets stuck' (because the info looked for is
not in its search data-base)].

The best-known example is peer-to-peer network search (P2P)[*N2] like
'eMule' - among others. The mass of data that can be searched in these
networks corresponds to the data shared by the users, and changes in an
irregular fashion with time; this is why such networks are described as
'transitory' [*N3]. This because a user is free to classify any material
{she puts in the system} as either public or restricted to the private
sphere. It is also a ground rule of P2P exchange that contents are to be
offered and shared freely (at least those that are searchable within the
network) in order to be able to receive other contents in return. In it
self, P2P is a legitimate practice; but data (audio, video, text files
etc.) may be shared abusively that are protected by copyrights, meaning
that at least one fourth of the population should go to jail for illegally
downloading a MP3 file or such. Moreover, an individual choice between
public and private sphere appears to become more urgent by the day. A
broad spectrum of possibilities is available, ranging form the moderate
option of fostering information exchange up to {the radical} option of
simply ducking any legal consideration, and going straight to the source
of piracy in order to enjoy anything the Web has to offer.

This spread of piracy by no means should be taken as proof that we are on
the verge of a popular revolution, especially since the sort of piracy at
stake here is mostly a half (in)voluntary one, and certainly not the
outcome of a reasoned choice by committed individual to oppose the current
knowledge protection system and face the consequences [N*4] It is more
that digital technology has done away with the material constraints of
reproducibility  and that the consumer culture pushes us to desire without
end. At least as far as information is concerned, we seem to find it
perfectly natural to desire anything we care to imagine, even though it
should be obvious that we will never be able to listen to but a fraction
of the music we download from the Net, or to see if only a meaningful
portion of the films we have stored on our hard drives. Yet, the existence
of desire, which is limitless 'sui generis', when combined with
technological opportunity, raises very serious questions regarding the
distribution and {equality of} access to knowledge. The free and costless
aspect which is characteristic of these exchanges defies the primacy of
productivist economics. The diffusion of opinions, for instance by blogs,
throws the very format of traditional mass media into crisis.

Basically P2P is nothing more than the surface level and the most
widespread manifestation of a form of exchange which is entirely
independent from any authority that is by statute above the community
level. There are many more instances of qualitative (re)search which are
all taken care of by trust networks which could redefine our orientation
perspectives on the Internet. In certain cases , these subjective
trajectories are centered around professional or cultural affinities, such
as {online} forums, newsgroups, and specialised blogs; in others the
binding element is their opposition to the official sources; one often
encounters sufficiently structured examples to constitute an alternative
model in terms of knowledge management.

It is therefore possible to imagine a - may be slow - evolution of
knowledge circuits from blogs towards P2P {networks}. An exchange of
programmes with no links to web publications, supported by dynamic
networks, where it is possible to share information flows and data files
between users, who would then really constitute circles of friends. This
would enable to make the distinction between what is private and what is
public dynamic and fluid, instead of static and frozen: every individual
would be free to share her information, and this with a flexible level of
accessibility /from public to private/.

(to be continued)

Translated by Patrice Riemens
This translation project is supported and facilitated by:

The Center for Internet and Society, Bangalore
The Tactical Technology Collective, Bangalore Office
Visthar, Dodda Gubbi post, Kothanyur-Bangalore (till March 31st, 2009)
The Meyberg-Acosta Household, Pune (April 2-11, 2009)
The Zainab Bawa and Kiran Jonnalagadda Household, Bangalore (from April
12, 2009)

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