Speaking of Taxonomy

Cory Doctorow’s latest Guardian blog post addresses the privitization of data classification on the internet via Google’s virtual monopoly on search.

He points out that before the advent of Search, internet developers assumed that all the information on the entire net would have to be arranged into categories, akin the Dewey Decimal System. It’s easy to see how this kind of enforced taxonomy can be problematic. As Doctorow explains:

Melvin Dewey didn’t predict computers; he also mixed Islam in with Sufism, and gave table-knocking psychics their own category. A full-contact sport like the internet just doesn’t lend itself to a priori categorisation.

The implementation of search engine technology, however, radically transforms the way we find and interact with data on the web.

Enter search. Who needs categories, if you can just pile up all the world’s knowledge every which way and use software to find the right document at just the right time?

But this is not without risk […] the way that search engines determine the ranking and relevance of any given website has become more critical than the editorial berth at the New York Times combined with the chief spots at the major TV networks. Good search engine placement is make-or-break advertising. It’s ideological mindshare. It’s relevance.

So, when a private company owns the algorithms that define how easy or difficult it is to access particular information or, in a less explicit sense, how much authority is given to some sources over others, the taxonomy of the internet is essentially privatized.

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2 Comments on “Speaking of Taxonomy”

  1. pizzapelsa Says:

    Interesting. I like your critique, but let me play devil’s advocate for a minute:

    If it is true that the search engine, as a technology, makes categories obsolete because “you can just pile up all the world’s knowledge every which way and use software to find the right document at just the right time,” then why does it matter who owns the search engine and gives you access to it? There is no questioning the fact that Google monopolizes the means, and controls the complex ways the means (search engine) sorts and categorizes information. But if the very nature of a search engine is to gives its user a specific power – to index and re-index information at will – then why does it matter who owns the code, or the machine that makes the calculation? Regardless of which hits come up first, most often, most consistently, etc., the user is always free to browse page after page of less relevant links, trolling for the information he/she was actually looking for. Even the predatory annoyances of advertising can’t fully stop the user from accessing the data in many different ways. Is Google’s obvious monopoly different or unique compared to other monopolies, because what they own in this case is a search engine?

    We tend to critique monopolization (just one end of the privatization spectrum) as a totalizing move that shuts down economic and cultural options, competition, sharing, copying, diversity, etc. But if a search engine allows people to sift through the internet’s data banks using own categories, then we’re looking at something quite different: liberating, user-directed, interactive, open-ended, etc. So which matters more, the closing-down potential of corporate monopoly or the opening-up potential of digital technology? What do you think?

  2. P Says:

    I can’t really offer this as my own critique, as I’m just riffing on what Doctorow wrote, but I’m pretty sure I agree with his contention that:

    The issue here is the fact that Google’s algorithms are hidden IP and, therefore, the public can’t know exactly what processes are used to determine what results show up first or most often for any given search term. Doctorow points out that search engines (presumably including Google) control how results are produced in order to mediate the work of link-spammers and other internet ne’er do wells, but because search is a privatized endeavor, we don’t know what other restrictions are placed on the flow of information in order to “preserve the quality of search.”

    I appreciate your point that the intrepid searcher is still able to access pretty much any information s/he wants if s/he is willing to put in the work, but I think it’s also important to recognize that by determining the order of results, Google is creating a kind of path of least data resistance which will appreciably determine what the searcher sees in the (probably) majority of cases when the searcher does not have the time or inclincation to troll through page after page of results.

    What I’m trying to get at here is a distinction between what we might call the “hard taxonomy” of the Dewey system and a “soft taxonomy” of Google’s algorithms. The latter certainly breaks down many of the biases inherent in the former, but maintain a set of controls that exist below the horizon of visibility (both due to the nature of the technology and the fact that the algorithms are privatized).

    Of course, in a more explicit sense, Google also allows website owners to pay for placement at the top of the queue in the “sponsored links” section. So, when you search “enclosure,” the first three links that pop up are for companies that make various kinds of boxes. The boundaries of the pay-for-display section are visible (though certainly not pronounced), so I guess it’s questionable whether this practice should really be considered a corruption of the “pure search”.


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