Out now: Society of the Query Reader: Reflections on Web Search

Posted: April 22, 2014 at 4:21 pm  |  By: Miriam Rasch  |  Tags:

SotQ-Reader_front_smallThe Institute of Network Cultures is proud to present INC Reader #9, Society of the Query: Reflections on Web Search, edited by René König and Miriam Rasch.

Order a copy of the print book, read online, or download the pdf for free!

About the book: Looking up something online is one of the most common applications of the web. Whether with a laptop or smartphone, we search the web from wherever we are, at any given moment. ‘Googling’ has become so entwined in our daily routines that we rarely question it. However, search engines such as Google or Bing determine what part of the web we get to see, shaping our knowledge and perceptions of the world. But there is a world beyond Google – geographically, culturally, and technologically.

The Society of the Query network was founded in 2009 to delve into the larger societal and cultural consequences that are triggered by search technology. In this Reader, which is published after two conferences held in Amsterdam in 2009 and 2013, twenty authors – new media scholars, historians, computer scientists, and artists – try to answer a number of pressing questions about online search. What are the  foundations of web search? What ideologies and assumptions are inscribed in search engine algorithms? What solution can be formulated to deal with Google’s monopoly in the future? Are alternatives to Google even thinkable? What influence does online search have on education practices? How do artists use the abundance of data that search engines provide in their creative work? By bringing researchers together from a variety of relevant disciplines, we aim at opening up new perspectives on the Society of the Query.


Contributors: Aharon Amir, Vito Campanelli, Dave Crusoe, Angela Daly, Vicențiu Dîngă, Martin Feuz, Ulrich Gehmann, Olivier Glassey, Richard Graham, Mél Hogan, Ippolita, Kylie Jarrett, Min Jiang, Anna Jobin, Phil Jones, Simon Knight, Dirk Lewandowski, M.E. Luka, Astrid Mager, Martina Mahnke, Andrea Miconi, Jacob Ørmen, Martin Reiche, Amanda Scardamaglia, Anton Tanter, and Emma Uprichard.

Colophon: Editors: René König and Miriam Rasch. Copy-editing: Morgan Currie. Design: Katja van Stiphout. Cover Design: Studio Inherent. Printer: Tuijtel, Hardinxveld-Giessendam. Publisher: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam. Supported by: Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam), Amsterdam Creative Industries Publishing, and Stichting Democratie en Media.

René König and Miriam Rasch (eds), Society of the Query Reader: Reflections on Web Search, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2014. ISBN: 978-90-818575-8-1, paperback, 292 pages.

Reflect and Act! Introduction to the Society of the Query Reader

Posted: April 23, 2014 at 8:45 am  |  By: Miriam Rasch  |  Tags:

SotQ-Reader_front_smallThe Institute of Network Cultures is proud to present INC Reader #9, Society of the Query: Reflections on Web Search, edited by René König and Miriam Rasch.

Read the Introduction below.
You can order a copy of the print book, read online, or download the pdf for free.


Reflect and Act! Introduction to the Society of the Query Reader

In the span of only a few years, search engines such as Google and Bing have become central infrastructure-like elements of the web. Within milliseconds they offer answers to pretty much all of our questions, providing a remarkably effective access point to the ever-growing ocean of information online. As usual for infrastructures, there is a harsh contrast between the importance they have in our daily lives and the attention we pay them. Just as we expect water running from the tap, electricity coming from the plug, and roads to drive on, we take for granted that there are search engines to give us the information we need.

However, search engines are becoming invisible, thereby increasing their implicit power. To counter this tendency, we need to design visibility campaigns to make their influence apparent. This is the main aim of Society of Query and similar initiatives such as Deep Search.1  Integrated in smart phone interfaces, browsers, apps, and platforms such as YouTube, we take for granted that there is a search bar in close range. Within a remarkably short time range we have familiarized ourselves with the search logic: type, select, click, and move on. The ever-increasing speed we use to search has created a collective ‘techno-unconsciousness’ from which we have to wake up. This INC Reader is a modest step in this direction. Read the rest of this entry »


  1. See Society of the Query project page: http://networkcultures.org/query/; the Deep Search conference page http://world-information.org/wii/deep_search/en and book: Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder (eds) Deep Search: The Politics of Search beyond Google. Innsbruck: Studienverlag, 2009. []

Children’s Information – Who Cares? By Maarten Sprenger

Posted: February 13, 2014 at 4:45 pm  |  By: Miriam Rasch  |  Tags: , , , ,

‘For children searching the internet is like riding a roller coaster in an amusement park. How to choose one’s own route and get useful hits when searching? How to avoid delay and distraction? How to distinguish between nonsense and reliable resources? It’s hard for adults, but even harder for children.’ Children’s Information – Who Cares? By Maarten Sprenger

Maarten Sprenger is the author of a recently published book for children and adults about searching for valuable information online (in Dutch: Slim zoeken op internet). He has extended experience in teaching about online search and also maintains a search engine especially for children: 8-12.info. On the conference Society of the Query #2 he talked about search engines for children and online search from an educational perspective.

For the Society of the Query resources collection, Maarten Sprenger wrote an extensive participatory observation and literature review of best practices from the field of information literacy and educational information retrieval by children aged 8 to 12 years. It is available on the Society of the Query website. Read, discuss and share your thoughts!

Children’s Information – Who Cares? By Maarten Sprenger

Society of the Query #2 – Conference Report

Posted: November 22, 2013 at 11:33 am  |  By: Miriam Rasch  | 

Query_thanksSociety of the Query #2 videos and blog reports are now online! If you missed out on this year’s conference or would like to experience it again, be sure to check out the videos below, where each presentation can be viewed in its entirety.

Society of the Query #2, an initiative of the Institute of Network Cultures, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, took place in Amsterdam, on November 7th and 8th 2013. It brought together 25 speakers divided in six sessions, including an art session. Two hundred people attended the event at the 7th floor of the Amsterdam Public Library, which, for two days, was the world’s hottest search engine hub.

You’ll find all the blog posts and videos on the Report page.

Algorithmic governmentality and the end(s) of critique–Antoinette Rouvroy

Posted: November 13, 2013 at 10:00 am  |  By: philip  |  Tags: , , , , ,  |  2 Comments

Antoinette Rouvroy, in her presentation titled ‘Algorithmic Governmentalities and the End(s) of Critique’, discussed issues surrounding search engines current focus on relationships between sites rather than content. She began by ex


plaining how modern academic knowledge goes through a series of critiques and peer reviews, while algorithmic knowledge is focused on more predictive aspects, never challenging people or content. An alternative definition of these changes could be summarized as “knowledge without truth.”

Rouvroy provided three examples of this paradigm shift by highlighting changes in knowledge production, modes of power, and human subjectivity. Knowledge production is a constantly accelerating and evolving process. Today, the vast amounts of raw data available make it difficult, if not impossible, to understand fully.

More and more of our knowledge production is being controlled, or at least accessed through, machines and search engines. This flow of “signs without signals,” attempting to represent reality, falls short and creates an atmosphere of “significance without symbolism.” The idea that knowledge is not constructed anymore, and merely found by Google and similar engines, has real consequences for humanity.

In this new world quality is determined by the relational infrastructures such as hyperlinks and keywords. When ranking pages, these relations are weighted much more heavily than the content itself, or the truth it may represent. While this system may seem extremely democratic, Rouvroy warns us of the implications of having ephemeral and algorithmic programs determine what we view as knowledge. A implication of this is the dwindling importance of the subject. As big data continues to grow and be analyzed at ever increasing rates, individuals lose forms of identity in order to be included in this knowledge system.

For Rouvroy, this loss of individuation and critique are highly related. She argues there is worth in how older systems of knowledge, such as physical archives, allowed for ideas to be categorized, and then subsequently tested for accuracy. Today these checks on truth are more more difficult to execute. Rouvroy ends by arguing that these new paradigms are “maybe” emancipatory and democratic, but are certainly multifaceted. All of this has created the current state of human/digital interactions as “multitude without alterity,” finding knowledge through difficult to fully understand search algorithms and engines.

Pascal Jürgens – Measuring Personalization: An Experimental Framework for Testing Technological Black Boxes

Posted: November 12, 2013 at 10:00 am  |  By: philip  |  Tags: , , , ,

Pascal Jürgens, in his presentation titled Measuring Personalization — An Experimental Framework for Testing Technological Black Boxes, discussed issues surrounding control and responsibility in regard to search engine results. As search engines increasingly provide easier and easier access to content, they also hold immense power over what information users actually receive. With the ever-increasing use of personalization and prediction, search engines act as black boxed systems that control flows of knowledge.


Jürgens discusses the oscillating nature of control between positive and negative impacts. From the earliest uses of information collection by feudal kings on their subjects, there has always been a power-based aspect of knowledge, and how it is found. It is this historical nature of knowledge that led Jürgen’s to say, “It’s all new and it’s all old.” It is the new that becomes the focus of the presentation.

Jürgens raises the question of Google, and its responsibility to “not be evil.” How do the use of advanced personalization and its potential to influence users fit into this question? Jürgen’s says that “personalized search results further expand this potential because they explicitly aim at maximizing the relevance of delivered content with regard to selection decisions. Despite their relevance, these technologies have rarely been subject to social scientific scrutiny.” As a social scientist, Jürgen’s research focuses on the existence of this ‘filter bubble,’ the idea that the results we get are based on the results we want.

Jürgens determined that while results did fluctuate from one person to another, no real filter bubble appeared to exist. He went about determining this by creating multiple fake Google accounts. These accounts would have search histories created, with each having its own theme (politically left, young, old. These accounts would there query Google, and Jürgen’s would compare what results were returned. It the end he determined that the results were similar enough to disprove the existence of a more controlling filter bubble. During the Q&A session after the talk, Jurgens explained that the testing methods for his reserach need to expand, and he is planning on continuing to study the filter bubble.

Min Jiang – Search Without Borders

Posted: November 11, 2013 at 10:20 pm  |  By: Serena Westra  |  Tags: , , , , ,

The popular depiction of the search engine as a borderless, global medium is an illusion, says Min Jiang. Search engines have become increasingly re-territorialized driven by several geo-graphical, political-legal, technological and economical factors that supersede our cosmopolitan impulses. As a native Chinese who has been doing research in the States, Dr. Min Jiang is the perfect speaker to talk about online search in China. In her presentation ‘Search Without Borders’ she shows that free search in China is not only limited by the so called Great Firewall of China, but also by several factors from within the country itself.
Society of the Query #2

Jiang starts her presentation by introducing her former workplace: the predominant state television broadcaster of China called China Central Television. It happens to be the case that this Chinese news agency uses exactly the same abbreviation as the infamous surveillance cameras in England: CCTV. Jiang finds it relevant to see how search cameras are somehow similar to these camera’s and news programs. Are we really aware of the borders of search? It might be strange to talk about it if you do not see these borders. Therefore, addressing these borders is vital.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sanne Koevoets – Library Dwelling: Quest and Query Tropes in Narratives on Libraries and the Internet

Posted: November 11, 2013 at 8:22 pm  |  By: stefania  |  Tags: , , , , , ,

Dr. Sanne Koevoets currently teaches philosophy and new media studies at Leiden University College in The Hague. In her research she focuses on the gendered dynamics of the library in the network society, with which she has engaged through the figure of the female librarian and the trope of the labyrinth.

Sanne Koevoets- Society of the Query #2 (photo by Martin Risseeuw)

Sanne Koevoets- Society of the Query #2 (photo by Martin Risseeuw)

In her talk, Library Dwelling: Quest and Query Tropes in Narratives on Libraries and the Internet, she discussed about the posibility of the dream of The great Library of Alexandria being made possible by new digital technologies.

Dr. Koevets discusses the library from multiple perspectives, showing how it is both viewed as a space that contains all the knowledge possible to us ( Borges’ The Library of Babel ) , but at the same time also as an impenetrable labyrinth that, although holding all this knowledge within its space, does not offer an intelligence system that allows for its exploring (Eco’s The Name of the Rose). She argues that any such organizing system is one of both inclusion and exclusion and is thus a political system made out of local prejudices and connections that shift as a result of a given system of power, so no real objective system of organization is possible. She brings into discussion Leibniz and his idea that the main problem with a library organisation system is rooted in the physical form of the book, which allows for the library to be only organized as linear. However, knowledge and meaning is based on complex cross-connections, so in this linear system knowledge itself becomes fragmented.

Sanne Koevoets- Society of the Query #2 (photo by Martin Risseeuw)

Sanne Koevoets- Society of the Query #2 (photo by Martin Risseeuw)

Furthermore, when discussing the possibility of the Universal Library becoming real in the digital realm, we must ask ourselves two questions. The first one is Can we state that it is objective?, meaning that we can find order in it with no exclusion? As the two days of conference have showed, search results are extremely customized and one must look no further than to countries that limit or censor internet access to understand that the Internet is also based on a network of powers that relies on inclusion and excusion. The second point concerning the internet as Universal Library is „Is it a library?”, to which again we must respond negatively if we consider the symbolic implications of the library as physical space, which is to represent the link between knowledge and power.

Dr. Sanne Koevets states that the are two plots or tropes to exploring the internet library: quest plot (in search of knowledge) and query plot (dwelling). She concludes by saying that the aim of dwelling should not be limited to locating or finding truth, but also to reflecting how knowledge is produced through discourse and materiality. She explained this point further by stating that knowledge itself is not emancipatory through the act of having it, but through understanding how it can circulate, how it is produced and performed and through understanding the relationship between the object and the subject of knowledge.

Payal Arora – The making of art knowledge via Google Images in rural India

Posted: November 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm  |  By: irina  |  Tags: , , , , , ,

Payal Arora is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication – Faculty of History, Culture and Communication at Rotterdam Erasmus University. With a research interest in digital learning, she contributed to the conference with a very interesting (albeit also worrying) study on the  search results Google provides to Indian pupils in rural villages and how they are used uncritically for educational purposes.

Arora Payal 1

Arora Payal at Society of the Query #2 (photo by Martin Risseeuw)

Payal Arora carried an 8 month long ethnographic research in the village of Almora (roughly 56,000 residents), a study which she published in her book  “Dot Com Mantra: Social computing in the Central Himalayas”. There she has been assisting pupils in their after-school projects. The place where these projects are carried is in the village’s cybercafe, the only place that has internet access. Cyber cafe’s are a governmental initiative in bridging the so called digital divide and thus providing high speed broadband to the poorer parts of the country – it costs about 50 cents for an hour; it’s a cheaper alternative to the  One Laptop per Child initiative.

The specific project she detailed at the conference was one in which students had to research Western versus Indian art via Google as a search engine. Read the rest of this entry »

Erik Borra and René König Show Google Search Perspectives on 9/11

Posted: November 11, 2013 at 4:54 pm  |  By: Catalina Iorga  |  Tags: , , , , , , ,

10742917514_b329d867c0_nErik Borra and René König were the second to last speakers of Society of the Query #2′s sixth and final session, The Filter Bubble Show, with a talk on why search engines are biased. As a case study, Borra and König chose the controversial topic of 9/11 and tried to answer how Google’s algorithm decides what is relevant for this particular query.  The reason why chose 9/11 as an object of study is its status as a global phenomenon examined from diverse perspectives, including conspiracy theories of 9/11 Truth Movement variety, which questioned the mainstream version of events featured in the media.

For the past six years, a script made at the Digital Methods Initiative, queried Google daily with the term “9/11″ and stored the top 10 search results for each day. The corpus of Borra and König’s study consisted of results chosen from four dates per year, one every few months. The top 10 URLs for the selected days were then coded using an emergent coding scheme: reading through all the pages that the URLs pointed to, noticing content commonalities and constructing the main categories of ‘mainstream’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘meta’, ‘history / facts’, ‘memorial’, ‘aftermath’, ‘popular culture’ and ‘other’.

Read the rest of this entry »