Society of the Query #2
Online Search: about 4.720.000.000 results
November 7 – 8, 2013
Main Building Amsterdam Public Library (OBA)
Amsterdam (NL)

The program booklet is also available for download, or flip through the PDF online on Issuu.

Thursday, 7/11
13:00 – 15:00 – Session 1: Google Domination
15:00 – 15:15 – Tea Break
15:15 – 16:30 – Session 2:  Search Across The Border
16:30 – 17:30 – Session 3: The Art Of Search

Friday, 8/11
10:00 – 12:15 – Session 4: Reflections On Search
12:15 – 12:30 – Book Launch: The Dark Side of Google by Ippolita (IT)
12:30 – 13:30 – Lunch
13:30 – 15:15 – Session 5: Search In Context
15:15 – 15:45 – Tea Break
15:45 – 17:30 – Session 6: The Filter Bubble Show
21:00 – 01:00 – Party: I’m Feeling Lucky

All the biographies of the participants can be found here.

Thursday, November 7

13:00-15:00 – Session 1 – Google Domination
Even though it is the aim of the Society of the Query to broaden the scope of search beyond Google, it is nonetheless inevitable to pay attention to the dominance of Google in the search engine market – especially from the perspective of the Netherlands, where Google has a market share of around 95%. Despite the growing diversification of Google in terms of revenue, search is still its main source of income, while users still see Google as a free service. Lately the battlefield has shifted to search on mobile phones – could this change or even end Google’s domination? What are the implications of the low resistance of the Google monopoly against PRISM? Has the time come for alternative, independent search engines?
Moderator: René König

> Siva Vaidhyanathan (US)
The Leviathan and the Cryptopticon: On the Intimate Relationship Between State Surveillance and Corporate Dataveillance
With the steady revelations throughout the summer of 2013 about the United States government’s programs and powers to monitor digital communication, mine metadata, and circumvent encryption, it has become clear that corporate habits once devoted to maximizing market share and targeting consumers serves a much larger and more nefarious interest. The culpability and responsibility that companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter have in an environment of coercive state tactics will be examined, while proposing strategies that active citizens might pursue to mitigate the dangers that massive state surveillance creates.

> Astrid Mager (AT)
Is Small Really Beautiful? Big Search and its Alternatives
Google can be blamed for its monopolistic position on the search market, its exploitation of user data, its privacy violations, its possible collaboration with the NSA. However, blaming Google is not enough. Rather than being ready-made, Google and its algorithmic ideology are constantly negotiated in society. The ways in which the capitalist spirit gets inscribed in Google’s technical Gestalt by way of social practices will be shown, while at the same time looking at alternative styles of search through the lens of ideology. If Google embodies the capitalist ideology what ideology do alternative search engines incorporate? Are there true alternatives to big players or do smaller search engines also buy into commercial practices (e.g. by entering alliances with Google, Bing & co)?

> Dirk Lewandowski (GE)
Why We Need an Independent Index of the Web
In recent years, there has been a lively discussion on ‘alternative search engines’. People argue that there is a need for alternative search engines, as there is only one dominant player on the search engine market, and even a large company like Microsoft struggles in establishing its own Web search engine. However, even if an alternative search engine could be financed by a company, a state, or even a larger body like the E.U., this would still be only one alternative. This would for sure be better than nothing, but in our view, it would be even better having lots of alternatives. The key to establishing such alternatives is the search engine index, i.e., the database every search engine is based upon. As an ideal, the index is a complete and current copy of the Web. Only a few companies operate indices that come close to this ideal, and it is very difficult and costly for a company creating a Web index from scratch. Therefore, new developments in the search engine sector that come from smaller companies focus on vertical search like news or blogs, as it is a lot easier to build indices in these areas. Furthermore, companies not having access to large databases of the Web, and therefore not being able to innovate in this area can at least in part explain the current lack of competition in the search engine market. Some might see the major search engines’ APIs as a solution. However, these allow only a restricted access to the index, limiting queries by the number of results, and, more importantly, limiting the results to hits that are pre-selected through the ranking algorithms of the search engine. Thus, an open search engine index is an infrastructure project that should be financed by state or the E.U. Such an index would facilitate competition on the search engine market and allow for lots of smaller search projects to be realized.

Go to bio’s.

15:00-15:15 – Tea break – La Place (OBA)

15:15-16:30 – Session 2 – Search across the border
It is little known in the west that elsewhere in the world Google is not a major player. Can we speak of cultural differences in the architecture of search technology? And in the way users search in for example the rural parts of India? In China there is a separate search engine domain, leading to a different political economy of online search – geopolitical, linguistically and culturally. How can we oppose this to the libertarian, North-American values of Google?
Moderator: Steven Pemberton

> Thomas Petzold (GE)
The Search Industry’s Five Percent Gamble
To support five per cent of the world’s languages suffices to reach the majority of the world’s population. This is the five per cent gamble made by the digital technology industry on global information and knowledge markets. Take Google Search as an example: although it is offered in a wide range of languages, more than ninety-five per cent of the world’s languages remain unsupported. A considerable gap remains, which is at best only partially addressed by the industry. Because of the investment costs needed in language support, the five per cent gamble is the direct outcome of the Return on Investment calculated by the industry in the overall context of internationalization and localization. The internationalization process makes sure that a piece of software is built language-neutral (and thus not biased towards any specific language), and the localization process then allows for different kinds of language and region support to be implemented. Recognizing the achievements in this domain, the five per cent gamble marks an important step towards making information and knowledge searchable and available for people. On the other hand, the benefits delivered and received by different language users differ greatly. The cost-benefit analysis of language support favours either languages that are relatively cheaper to support, say languages using Latin alphabets such as some European languages, or languages that have huge market benefits, say major world languages such as Chinese and Arabic. Clearly, the current trade-off between knowledge diversity and market efficiency is made at the expense of the former, and in favour of the latter. The current state of Internet search is neither satisfactory nor innovative enough to unleash the vast potentials of human knowledge. To improve the situation, we need further social and technical innovations to allow for better knowledge capacity building. This is an opportunity for both private and public players to try innovative social and technical measures to serve more users in more meaningful ways.

> Min Jiang (US)
Search Without Borders? On Borders and Chinese Search Engines
Certain media are thought ot be distance-defying, unbounded by space. From the invention of paper to the latest telecommunication revolution, geography and borders, we are told, do not matter any more particularly when you can send a message to the other side of the world at the click of a mouse. However, Min Jiang argues the popular depiction of the search engine as a borderless, global medium is an illusion. Search engines have become increasingly re-territorialized driven by various geo-linguistic, political-legal, technological and economic factors that supersede our cosmopolitan impulses. Drawing from previous work on Chinese search engines, Min Jiang will discuss the border politics of Chinese web search, focusing on four aspects: 1) geo-linguistic borders between Chinese Mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Chinese diasporic regions; 2) political-legal borders erected for web filtering and control purposes; 3) geo-technological borders automated by geo-location technological regimes; and 4) economic borders re-emphasizing ‘place’ over space and the localization of business. These factors have made web search an increasingly ‘parochial’ rather than ‘cosmopolitan’ activity, much to the contrary of our earlier dreams for the ‘borderless’ medium of search engines. Consequences of search parochialism and possible alternatives are offered to re-imagine what search engines could become.

> Payal Arora (NL)
Chinese Cowboy Paintings as Western Art? The Making of Art Knowledge via Google Images in Rural India
Youth at a rural cybercafé in India browse through Google Images for their school project on ‘Western versus Indian’ art. Images of cowboy paintings by Chinese artists surface, and gets demarcated as Western painting. While Mona Lisa is selected, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is not. Raja Ravi Varma wins a place in the Indian art portfolio due to his depiction of classic Indian themes. Drawing from eight-months of fieldwork on digital engagements by youth in rural India, Payal Arora grounds current enthusiasm on e-learning and global knowledge making through a postcolonial lens. As 600,000 villages are currently being connected in India through cybercafés, this serves as an opportunity to delve into how youth in villages are taking to search engines and facilitating online knowledge circulations. Specifically, we investigate what constitutes as ‘classic’ Indian and Western art in this novel context. Search tools allow for new opportunities for learning; yet, it is seen that this is subjective to mediations that are historical, political and technical. Informal learning appears to be liberated from formal curriculum; yet, such freedom brings deep and persistent (mis)education. Faith in search engines often triumphs over local teachers, serving as new authorities on art critique. Understandings on art through Google Images are locally designed and not necessarily in line with global curricula on classic art, creating cosmopolitanisms in global education. Overall, it is found that digital learning is creative but not necessarily ‘correct’ by formal education standards nor always compatible with global understandings.

Go to bio’s.

16:30-17:30 – Session 3 – The Art of Search
Art – whether it’s fine arts, video, net art or something else – often reflects on or even is born from the newest developments in technology and from their malfunctions. This session will focus on the art of search and how search engines become artistic with their visual characteristics and features, shaping our cultural knowledge and approach to society.
Moderator: Renée Ridgway

> Rebecca Lieberman
‘visually similar imgs
visually similar imgs is a reflection on the poetics of search. The project encompasses an ongoing series of artist books, animated GIFs, video projects and a browser-based art work. visually similar imgs is an investigation of how digital images move through the internet wilderness; how they are morphed, aggregated, mutated, repossessed, collected, emptied of their contents, and reinvested with new kinds of meaning. The project draws its source material and subject matter (as well as its name) from Google’s ‘Search by Image’, a search product released in 2012 that allows people to search with images instead of written queries; feeding banal images through the search (selfies, cat photos, family snapshots, porn) maps color, pixel density, and other formal elements to create a proliferation of new images that are ‘visually similar’. Rebecca Lieberman is interested in the seams and failures of this technology – in those moments where an image of a hand becomes pictures of rifles and an old man’s bald head, or some digital noise on a black square is transmuted into the texture of a dress or a night sky.

> Anja Groten – presentation on screen
The Aesthetics of Power
Anja Groten, designer and researcher based in Amsterdam is interested in using external forces during her working process. By designing collective moments, she aims to go into discussion with the public and simultaneously provokes confrontation and the unexpected. During the participatory lecture, queries will be sent out to the public which will invoke the spontaneity of the attendants and will lead to a collective understanding of the request in that particular moment. The search results will be made tangible and transformed into a live design.

> Isabelle Massu
The great family of Man
1950’s: first constitutions of family albums, pictures are multiplied, relocated, traded like cards. Tools are democratized, one does not go on holiday without his Kodak, documenting his small world, while others more professional handle the big one, observe, collect and give away the far away exotic. Photographic exhibitions are increasing, showing it all, the private and the precious as well, humanist photographers set the tone and say the world in picture. In 1955 the Family of Man exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York paints a portrait of humanity implying we all belong together. The exhibition is organized around 37 themes: love, birth, work, family, education, children, war and peace …Today, the family has undoubtedly expanded, but so have appropriate tools of representation. Our daily pain is immortalized on the internet. The distant cousin takes charge of the Really Simple Syndication, the dangerous liaisons. In turn, other family members implement, participate, collaborate to weave the web and feel unstoppable in their illusionary function, to create meaning. Not too isolated from each other, not too close either, we like to be part of that family. We enjoy it, cherish it in search of similarities within this impalpable tribe. Exchanging gift without remorse from screen saver to instant postcard, a difficult choice among 106,118, 222,767 sunsets, 160,669 horses and 239,879 births.

> Rosa Menkman
Beyond Resolution
In the last decade scholars have avidly tried to raise awareness about the importance of understanding the complexities of the media landscape: protocols refer and are encapsulated in other protocols (Galloway ‘Protocol’, MIT, 2006) and evil media do never exist alone. The media landscape has become more and more compound, or in other words: a ‘heterogenous assemblage’. Rules and protocols change data to exist, move and to be reflected upon media through media resolutions. Resolutions are thus ultimately the settlement (a solution – but often at the same time a compromise) between two or more underlying themes or dimensions. Even though media might have never existed on their own, the complexities of its landscape have now moved beyond human recognition. The cost of all of these resolutions within media is that people have become unaware of (most) of them. Have we become bad at constructing our own resolutions, or are we just oblivious to them and their inherent compromises? If you know the question, you most probably already have the answer. It is time to examine how to uncover absent queries.

Go to bio’s.

Friday, November 8

9:30-10:00 – Doors open

10:00-12:15 – Session 4 – Reflections on search
Is it possible to analyze the search engine as a cultural artifact? Does it have a philosophical agenda and how can we read it? Search is often overlooked as an important part in the fast changing field of knowledge production. It is only dealt with in a mathematical and statistical fashion or with a focus on its economic significance as a tool of corporate power. But search did not commence in the late 90s – it has been around for centuries. It’s important to stress the media-archeological approach, since the history of search, digital or analogue, offers many insights into its cultural meaning.
Moderation: Geert Lovink

> Kylie Jarett (IRE)
Search for the Google God: Metaphysics and the Social Imaginary of Search
To understand the history of search it is important to do more than document a series of technical developments and the rise and fall of particular economic entities. It is also about understanding the underlying social imaginary that has animated the political, economic and technological changes through which search has evolved. Underpinning the history of search is a fundamental desire for a unifying metaphysical entity that can render the world comprehensible. It is in the promise of providing such a technology that Google and its ‘mind-reading’ search algorithms emerge as powerful actors. This discussion will briefly trace the metaphysical desires articulated in historical information management technologies, as well as specifying how Google relates to the contemporary desire for a universal, but individualized, knowledge system.

> Antoinette Rouvroy (BE)
Algorithmic governmentality and the end(s) of critique
Algorithmic personalization is characterised primarily by the two following movements: a) dissipation of all forms of transcendent ‘scale’, ‘benchmark’, or hierarchy, in favour of an immanent normativity evolving in real time; b) avoidance of any confrontation with individuals (meaning-making subjects) whose opportunities for subjectivation have become increasingly scarce. This dual movement is the consequence of the focus on relations rather than substances in contemporary statistics or data mining. To what extent are these two aspects of the ‘algorithmic personalization’ – emancipatory as they may appear with regard to ‘old’ hierarchies and with regard to ‘old’ conceptions of the subject as a stable, unitary entity – conducive to new processes of individuation? Simondon and Deleuze-Guattari show that the possibility of becoming and of processes of individuation through relations necessarily require disparities – a heterogeneity of scales, a multiplicity of regimes of existence that algorithmic personalization is continuously stifling. Algorithmic personalization, folding up individuation processes on the individual monad, tends to foreclose the emancipatory perspectives of these philosophers. In the ‘big data era’, the goal of individual and collective individuation is inseparable from an epistemic and semiotic critique of the algorithmic production of what counts as real.

> Anton Tantner (AT)
Towards a History of Search in the Analogue Age: Human Search Engines and Intelligence Offices
Problems that haunt us today such as privacy issues, poor observance of the secrecy of registered data and government use of these services were also relevant in early modern and modern times that knew ‘human search engines’ such as go-betweens, servants and concierges, and institutions such as intelligence offices, bureaux d’adresse or question offices. By focusing on these two types of ‘analogue search engines’ Anton Tantner wants to stress that an historical approach to the ‘pre-history’ of search engines can be useful in reflecting the current conflicts that are aroused by companies such as Google.

Go to bio’s.

12:15-12:30 – Book launch The Dark Side of Google by Ippolita (IT)
The Dark Side of Google by Italian writers collective Ippolita offers a thorough, serious analysis of what’s behind the universe of Google and the metadata industry. Google has been a master at taking advantage of our need for simplicity. We sit before a colossus, an incredibly pervasive system of managing knowledge, comprising aggressive marketing and shrewd management of its own image, and the propagation of highly configurable interfaces that are still implacably recognizable. There has also been the cooptation of the methods for developing Free Software, the use of futuristic systems for gathering and storing data. What lies behind the most consulted search engine in the world? First published in Italian in 2007, the INC presents the revised and updated English edition in the series Theory on Demand #13.

Go to bio’s.

12:30-13:30 – Lunch

13:30-15:15 – Session 5 – Search in context
There is a long-term cultural shift in trust happening, away from the library, the book store, even the school towards Google’s algorithms. What does that mean? How are search engines used in today’s classrooms and do teachers have enough critical understanding of what it means to hand over authority? We think we find more and in a faster way, while we might actually find less or useless information. The way we search is related to the way we see the world – how do we learn to operate in this context?
Moderator: Jelte Timmer

> Simon Knight (UK)
Finding Knowledge: What it Means to ‘Know’ in the Age of Search
In this talk, Simon Knight invites the audience to consider their own educational experiences, and the nature of their access to external resources in examinations and other assessments. While some may have experienced open book or take home exams, these are certainly not commonplace. Denmark – which at school and university level has permitted some access to the internet during exams – thus stands in stark contrast to many people’s experience. There is a discordance here; on the one hand, the ubiquity of the ‘course book’ is in decline, and neither teachers or students find being sent to a single pre-moderated text acceptable now. Yet on the other hand, there is a nervousness about these new technologies in most countries and their suitability for educational purposes. This is perhaps in part due to concerns around the suitability of search engines as ‘epistemic tools’ – as informants that can reliably give us information. There are two sides to this issue, the biases and inadequacies of both the tools, and the users. This talk will discuss some search engine features within that framing of ‘epistemic tools’, highlighting why Simon Knight thinks it is a useful consideration, and its particular implication for educational contexts.

Unfortunately Martin Feuz will not be present.

> Sanne Koevoets (NL)
Library Dwelling: Quest and Query Tropes in Narratives on Libraries and the Internet
In the cultural imaginary the library stands as a symbol of the modernist quest for universal, objective knowledge. The internet and the library have for a long time been used as metaphors for one another. Library theories have for a long time described the library as a network of knowledge, whereas early utopian writing on the internet presented this new technology as the final realization of the ‘universal library’. Both the library and the internet have been described, represented, and narrated in ways that bely underlying assumptions as to how knowledge can be ‘found’ or ‘discovered’ in spaces of knowledge. But although both involve technological systems of order, discipline, and control, this metaphorical slippage obscures how different systems of indexing and ordering privilege different ways of searching for and engaging with knowledge. This presentation will engage with the narrative construction of the internet as a Universal Library in popular culture, and show that while traditional library narratives (Borges, Eco) were aimed towards unveiling the chaos behind the semblance of order, utopian internet as-UL (Langford, Thiem) narratives revel in the semblance of chaos without revealing the underlying systems of control. The narrative trope of the library Quest, in other words, served to provide the hero with the insight that knowledge exists in an impenetrable labyrinth. The narrative trope of the Query, on the other hand, presents that insight as fact, without revealing the underlying systems of control.

Interview Maarten Sprenger (NL)
Maarten Sprenger is the author of a recently published book for children and adults about searching for valuable information online (Slim zoeken op internet). He has extended experience in teaching about online search and also maintains a search engine especially for children: He will be talking about his recent projects with Geert Lovink.

Go to bio’s.

15:15-15:45 – Tea Break

15:45-17:30 – The Filter Bubble Show
Since Eli Pariser’s influential book The Filter Bubble appeared in 2011, a range of researchers have empirically tried to validate or debunk the proposition of the filter bubble. Is it truly so that the person sitting next to you gets a different search result while using in the same keywords? What do you actually see when you type ‘9/11’ in the Google autocomplete search bar in Baghdad and in New York? What are the long-term effects of personalization and localization and their tendency to a ‘relative truth’? We need to find a way to take our Twitter, Facebook and search engine profiles to burst the bubble and understand society.
Moderator: Miriam Rasch

> Erik Borra (NL) en René König (GE)
Googling 9/11: The Perspectives of a Search Engine on a Global Event
When one searches for 9/11 there are numerous aspects which the query can point to: one may want to locate books or movies about the attacks of 11 September 2011 and its implications, inquire about the 9/11 commission, pay a visit to the 9/11 memorial museum in New York etc. As this event had broad cultural and political implications, many diverse perspectives exist. For example, by insinuating that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’ by the US government, the so-called ‘9/11 Truth Movement’ has provided a fairly popular account which vastly contradicts the mainstream version. Search engines need to determine which ten sites to return as the top results for any query. As so many people rely on search on a daily basis it thus becomes interesting to study which results are deemed most important for specific queries. We stored the Google results for the query ‘9/11’ for over five years. We then identified the types of sites returned (are these government sites, commemoration sites, sites providing alternative explanations, etcetera) and investigate their ranking over time. We further inquire which kinds of information are available by doing a historical content analysis of these sites. Last but not least, we compare Google’s query suggestions for 9/11 in different countries. We are thus able to show how Google represents a complex issue such as 9/11 over time.

Unfortunately Noortje Marres will not be present.

> Pascal Jürgens (GE)
Measuring Personalization: An Experimental Framework for Testing Technological Black Boxes
Search engines vastly enhance people’s daily lives by making information more accessible. At the same time, they harbor an enormous potential for influencing users. 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 – mainly because they operate as black boxes and their effects can only be observed in the field, where confounding variables abound. Building on a method developed by Feuz, Fuller, and Stalder, the goal is to create synthetic user profiles and stimulate personalization. By programmatically simulating realistic user behavior, this method performs hypothesis tests against unknown algorithms such as Google’s personalization. Our results indicate that although personalization of search results does occur, its effects (as of now) are too weak to produce a true ‘Filter Bubble’ in which two users receive truly distinct content.

> Engin Bozdag (NL)
Does Culture Affect Information Diversity? An Empirical Study of Information Diversity for Dutch and Turkish Twitter Users
Some authors argue that social media can cause citizens to be ill informed about current events and may lead citizens to have increasingly idiosyncratic perceptions about the importance of current events and political issues. This might occur because online services can implicitly filter information in order improve accuracy at the expense of serendipity. Users can also themselves explicitly personalize their incoming feed and political groupings and fragmentation may occur where users follow only like minded users. This might lead to so-called ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’ in which users get to see only opinions that they agree with, and information from the sources they ‘liked’ before. Excessive personalization may lead to never seeing the other side of an argument and thus fostering an ill informed political discourse. Implicit personalization may lead to an automatic cyberbalkanization, an unhealthy distaste for the unfamiliar. While these dangers are highlighted by several authors, few empirical studies exist that actually studies opinion diversity in social networks. In this talk, Engin Bozdag first provides two different norms to evaluate information diversity: reflection and openness. Later, he discusses the results of his recent empirical study to see whether filter bubble occurs in Twitter, for Dutch and Turkish users.

Go to bio’s.

21:00 – 1:00 – Party: I’m Feeling Lucky – Roest
The venue is a creative urban oasis, cafe and bar, beach and a cultural sanctuary at the same time. Come join us for a unique night out in Amsterdam!