Against Search

The other day I submitted a first draft of an article entitled, “Against Search—Towards A New Computational Logic of Media Accessibility”, to be published within the fortcoming Blackwell Companion to New Media Dynamics, edited by John Hartley, Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns. The article tries to map out, explain and understand, as well as situate and critically examine new search modalities within a larger framework of information retrieval in general, and alternative forms of media archival accessibility in particular. In short, I argue that new forms of different computational logics should be deployed in order to facilitate access to deep data as well quantitative surface data in both web n.0 media collections and at more traditional digital archives and libraries currently being coded online. I look forward to the editors comments – the article begins like this:

Let’s start off with one of the most compelling questions of our time: what does it mean to be human in the digital age? Well, one overwhelming challenge facing us all is having digital access to more information, data and knowledge than any previous generation of humankind. A burden perhaps—at least for some. But for the majority of us, a blessing. The often invoked libertarian information-wants-to-be-free paradigm not only insists on free flow of data. All these bits and bytes in the digital domain has to be organized and found, which needless to say is the underlying rationale for the most successful web behemoth of all. Suffice to say, we all live with an increased screen attention (of various sizes), and giving computers (and their mobile clones) textual and haptical commands has also become a ubiquous normality. Access to whatever we want literally lies at our fingertips; information is there somewhere waiting—and the question are always where to look. So, you search.

Ever since Google introduced its white and clean search box interface in the late 1990s—Internet Archive crawled the site for the first time in mid November 1998—the blank frame has been waiting for input. During the last decade this peculiar type of white box has become the new search default, especially within the information retrieval sector par excellence at archives, libraries and museums. “Search the Collections”, is the standard phrase awaiting every online user, implying a more or less vague notion that one already needs to know what one came for. Users are, of course, experienced since surfing the web basically means searching it. Subsequently, the notion of ‘search’ is key for the digital domain in general, and the web in particular. Understanding Google, Steven Levy notes, is trying to “grasp our technological destiny.” From a more scholarly perspective, ‘Search Studies’ is on the brink of developing into an academic field; ‘search’ is, after all, the primary human-computer interaction mode. Mining search patterns and optimizing the engine is what Google and other search companies does on a daily basis, and through online ‘search’ events IRL, like the spread of flues, can increasingly be anticipated. Search per se has in many ways somewhat paradoxically become the answer to questions asked.

To diagnose the cultural logic of online search is, naturally, a vast topic—ranging from the omnipresent potential of Google analytics to the critique of the ‘googlization of everything’ and unfiltered initiatives like Scroogle. Being coded and technical by nature ‘search’ remains highly complicated, with constant upgraded algorithms exploiting the link structure of the web. Since studying tech infrastructures is a blind spot for media studies, complexities are particularly striking from this perspective. Accessibility to various media content in an age characterized by dynamics and volatility is, however, regulated by notions of search, and therefore it remains essential to analyze and grasp how and why ‘search’ has become so important. During the last decade the notion of search has also been challenged by new and alternative computational modes of accessibility, which is yet another argument why ‘search’ needs to be taken seriously (and, admittedly, few would argue otherwise). Tags, folksonomies, or social tagging are, for example, new transformative web based practices and methods to annotate and categorize information and media content in an effort to collectively classify, tease out and find data in other ways than simply through the mantra, ‘search the collections’. Online browsing is, of course, a widely used option, as well as simply ‘clicking’. On YouTube—the quintessential new digital ‘archive’—one textual search is often enough, and then tags and linked videos leads the user into a streaming vortex of differentiated media. Context of content is often fleeting and arbitrary; odd juxtapositions norm rather than exception, and material regularly detached from its place of origin. Clicking rather than searching, thus, becomes an epistemic way of locating and perceiving media material, often in unintended ways. Usage resembles that of walking around in (weird) open library stacks, even if the much appraised digital ‘openness’ on the net in general, and on web 2.0 platforms in particular, always remains modulated on a protocological basis. A web browser is, after all, a translator of code and an interpreter of digital data that profoundly shapes user experiences. Then again, from a strict computer-science perspective, user generated and participatory platforms like YouTube are nothing but databases. Still, in any given cultural context, surfing onto a platform and watching a video at, say, YouTube obviously entails more than that. From a media studies perspective it is therefore debatable whether we ‘watch databases’ only (Lovink), or claims that there is ‘no content, only data and other data’ (Galloway & Thacker), has much relevance in regards to YouTube, or for that matter other cultural heritage or social media sites.

Nevertheless, given the sheer size of contemporary online media collections—from the vast information repositories of data at Wikileaks or The Pirate Bay, to billions of UGC on YouTube and Flickr, or for that matter the 20 million digitized heritage objects at the Library of Congress—simply having a look what’s inside the digital ‘archive’ is no longer possible. However, the contemporary ‘flood of information’ is, by no means, new. On the contrary, libraries and archives have during the last century repeatedly complained over way too many books and documents. The major difference, today, is that in digitized form such material can be analyzed collectively as major cultural sets rather than on a singular basis only. Singularity works for analyzing the particular. But the general is arguably more interesting, and often of greater importance. Hence, massively linked data has nowadays the potential to reveal new human patterns that hitherto remained invisible. The notion of a particular ‘search’, then, is not the answer to the more or less infinite digital archive.