Notes on Media


Just another weblog. Lasse Bo Timmermann.

Alternative Search

Society of the Query FlyerVisiting the Society of the Query Conference I had the chance to listen to many interesting talks on the impact of search engines (not only Google) on our lives. The two sessions on alternative search recalled Alexander Galloway’s call for the creation of alternative algorithms to my mind. In Mary Joyce’s blog I found a nice entry on Power & the Network that points out the relevance of such an endeavor. She writes that

“[…] the challenge for people who want to encourage more effective digital activism is to figure out which content will both assist activists in creating effective campaigns and which can be disseminated most effectively online.”

One way to do so and also to account for her second request, namely to provide people with

[…] digital content that not only inspires and directs citizens to act, but also tells them how to act[,]

could be in the creation of the algorithms mentioned above. It would hence not only be the content, as Joayce writes, but also about the techniques of dissemination. Rather than merely adapting to the protocols and pathways provided by the Web one should also open the eyes for alternatives. The Society of the Query conference provided some interesting hints in this direction. Particularly interesting to me were the misspelling generator that can for instance be used to temporarily circumvent censorship and the anxiety monitor, which provides a tool to visually compare the connotations of different keywords towards diverse cultural backgrounds. While these examples fall more in the first category and are dealing with using the available tools to provide alternatives to the default search options, the approach presented by Daniel von der Velden was different. His main argument for alternative search is that the interesting challenges to main stream assumptions are found at the periphery of the usual search results. The problem with thos results is that they

“[…] are often not directly connected to the statement and exist isolated as isolated worlds away from the powerful, reigning opinion. Metahaven wants to develop a search engine that connects these different spheres, to provide different points of views on particular issues and be able to put emphasis on the marginal forces.

To achieve these goals Metahaven strives to create maps that reveal the networks of power and provide a better overview on where the information can be found and how it is distributed. Through this they want to open up the black-boxes of cloud-computing and current search engines. Even though Metahaven attempts to provide a truly alternative search and wants to provide a greater visibility of alternate accounts something from Joyce’s requests seems to remain open. It is certainly not enough to provide the people with the information. Alternative algorithms also have to show their users how to act, the next step so to say. This is what will be one of the great challenges for alternative search in the future.


Filed under: Activism, Algorithms, Amsterdam, Conference, Engines, Internet, Politics

The Politics of Algorithms

A political critique of search engines never is an easy thing. It is widely accepted that the top results provided by the search engine follow the stance of the mainstream media and that minorities quickly get buried within the back of the results. Similar assumptions are argued extensively, for instance in Matthew Hindmans The Myth of Digital Democracy, but to me their conclusions seem too easy. Mareijn de Vries Hoogerwerff nicely sums up the issues that arise in his blog post Democracy of the Algorithm. He remarks that the search results are created by the links (or votes) of the users and thus reflect the popular accounts for certain issues.

“Seeing the Google search engine as producing information that represents the diverse sets of opinions needed for true democratic debate (if we for the moment assume this is at all possible through media) thus ignores the way the technology operates. It is not so much Google search engine serving a misleading presentation of facts, but more so a misunderstanding of what it is. The search results are returning exactly what could be expected and the service works just fine.”

He is certainly right about the assumption that the role of search engines is misunderstood by many. Currently search engines are not tools to provide us with different realities and tend to filter the unexpected. He concludes that the Western faith in technology, or what he calls information determinism earlier in the post, might have lead to the somehow naiv belief that the information that is returned by the engine accounts for all the available voices. The result of such a perception would be the belief that the sheer availability of information and its universal accessibility could solve complicated social problems. His suggestion, as I understand it, is that we have to learn (again?) to read the distortions caused by the engine, like the Chinese do with the results returned for Tiananmen square on

But to whom will such an awareness be available? Will it be only the well educated or scholarly working? There certainly are reasons for the misunderstanding of what the engines are serving. Instead of accepting the apparent bias of the algorithm we might also look at the creation of alternative algorithms. As Alexander Galloway writes in an article:

“[…] I call for the creation of an experimental school of alternative algorithms modeled around a variety of political and social goods. We need a viable critique of collaborative filtering.”

I believe that technology critical movements can gain a significant political influence over the coming years. The success of the pirate party over Europe has already been compared to the green movement of the 80s by some. Taking Galloway’s call seriously their politics would thus not necessarily be limited to a single topic (the Internet), something they are accused of very often. They would rather stand for a certain way of living; the critical dealing with and the conscious use of alternative algorithms could become something like the new green in 20 or 30 years. ‘Green’ algorithms that admittedly stand for more fairness and require some more work to find the results one is looking for. In return they allow more voices to be heard and are able to surprise me as a user. This might be utopian, but its certainly something to think about.

Filed under: Algorithms, Engines, Internet, Politics