Society of the Query – Part 1: Lovink, Boutang, Pasquinelli and Numerico

Last month the Institute of Network Cultures organized a two day conference entitled Society of the Query. Below you can find a wrap-up of the notes I took during the conference. More elaborate blog entries focusing on each of the lectures separately can be found here and you can also take a look at the video recordings here.

Subtitled Stop searching start questioning, the Society of the Query conference was soon nick-named the anti-Google conference, though its focus was a little bit different. The underlying idea was to take a critical look at Google and its dominance in the digital domain, as a way to start thinking about ways to conceptualize the idea of search, and to think about its theoretical background. In order to achieve this goal, the Institute of Network Cultures brought together people from all kinds of disciplines and backgrounds, academics, tech people, artists, media critics, to discuss the politics and culture and the philosophy and aesthetics of the search and search engines. As Geert Lovink, the main organizer states in his opening talk, the (sub)title of the conference was dedicated to the American Computer Scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, who wrote about the rise of the search paradigm and asked the question what the long-term implications would be of this search dominance. Hence the motto of the conference ‘stop searching, start questioning.’ What are the wider consequences of the rise of search in everyday life, of surfing as the dominant activity on the Web? As Lovink states, the Internet is still widely under theorized: we need some new ideas and theories to reflect upon this issue. Lovink’s aim is to develop a cultural theory of search. To achieve this we should (also) focus on alternative (search) models, for through the alternatives we can also come to a better understanding of the present situation and how to deal with Google.

From the perspective of critique (anti-trust, legal issues) we can consider from which point of view to take on this giant. What exactly defines our problem with Google, is it (justified) fear, is it envy? What disturbs us so much about Google itself? Whatever the problem, as Lovink says, we should not let Google become an obsession. We should not underestimate our influence when it comes to the power we have to develop political, aesthetic and cultural concepts that can undermine this giant. In this respect Lovink feels theory and criticism have a much larger role to play. Research, alternatives interfaces, and artistic interpretations all contribute to a cultural flow that could push things into another direction.

The first speaker, Yann Moulier Boutang, from France, recently wrote a book entitled Cognitive Capitalism. The main question he asks during his talk is whether it is possible to escape the monopoly of Google. For the dominant position of Google is growing each year. Exactly why is Google so popular, he asks. According to Boutang this mainly has to do with the increasing number of services Google offers. The problem is that these services are increasingly being perceived as being new ‘commons’ or services that should be public state services. Hence we are not only afraid of Google’s monopoly but even more afraid of Google becoming (being?) a rent seeker of our own collective intelligence, exploiting us as producers of knowledge. In a way Google’s platform can thus be seen as a form of cognitive capitalism, as a factory for the commoditization of knowledge.

Boutang describes what in his view can be seen as the economic model of Google. Google creates a neo- or meta-market on top of a society of personal data, of singularities (pollen). The counterintuitive part of this model is that it needs some ‘free’ or ‘gratis’ space in order to be able to aggregate some added value in another field. You need some non-market driven services to aggregate money. ‘Free’ is thus an inescapable part of the model. Who is working for Google? We are. By our contribution (clicking, surfing) we pollinate. Google offers us a platform, a hub. What Google sells is thus not only a space for publicity but also the network itself in real time. And this is the strength of Google: it offers you a platform of free services and lets you through these services again contribute to the platform: it functions as an economy of contribution which you add to by pollination. What Google sells to firms is not knowledge as a good but the possibility to enter into the market. In the realm of cognitive capitalism a shift has thus occurred from the sphere of marketable input and output to the sphere of human pollination. As Boutang states, this naturally creates a problem. Where knowledge is perceived as a public good, Google gathers its income from the exchange of information and knowledge, creating additional value in this process. Google, as a true capitalist, is able to capture this value created in the net by building platforms that function like agricultures or hives. In this way, Boutang says, Google is emblematic of the “communism of capitalism”. We need to understand that the basics of our economy have changed. And this raises some important questions: Is it possible to free the click workers? Can a search engine increase our autonomy? Should we think about a nationalization of Google? (where Google imitated the public model of knowledge?) And what about the privacy issue? And should we protect the peer to peer networks?

The next speaker, Matteo Pasquinelli, an Italian media critic, starts his talk by stating that knowledge is easy to replicate, since it is non-competitative or non-rival. Where we have embraced the network as a new kind of space for social interaction and self organization, the digital sphere at the same time also amplifies competition. The digital matrix multiplied everything, cooperation as well as monopoly. Pasquinelli wonders whether knowledge is (still) really non-competitive, with the monopolistic colonization of the digital sphere by Google. Referring to Nicolas Carr, he states that the hearth of Google is the page rank algorithm. With this algorithm, Google mines the intelligence that is in the number of links. The greater amount of links to a site, the greater its knowledge. And clicking on the links makes the system smarter, Pasquinelli states, referring again to the diagram of cognitive capitalism. In this sense the digital sphere can no longer be satisfyingly analyzed in the context of ‘the good people and the evil empire’ in the  Foucaltian, biopolitical idea of control and the big brother paradigm. Where Google produces value in a new way, Pasquinelli states we cannot use these old conceptual tools to describe this process. We should not focus on control but on value and on how this value is produced, accumulated and re-appropriated by us. Pasquinelli asks whether it is possible to do critical network thinking? And what notion of value do we need with that? How can we describe the value of the node, of the way Google organizes the fluid, liquid flow of data through its algorithm? It is an economic flow of values that circulates on the Internet and offline. What is the value of the network? How do we valorize the level of pollination and valorization, now that the value of circulation is much higher than the value of production?

Google’s income comes from advertising. But as Pasquinelli states, Google is exploiting cultural capital with this. What about the copyright question when free culture and free cooperation feeds Google? Social production and the idea of free knowledge propagated by thinkers like Lawrence Lessig are quite naïve, Pasquinelli states, because they do not grasp the whole value system around knowledge and the way our free contributions add value to the system. We need to think about new business models that look into this exploitation which also entails a dematerialization of traditional commodities. With this crisis of the traditional commodity and product (everything free) comes the rise of a new monopoly, a monopoly of space instead of a monopoly of the product: Google monopolizes the metadata space. We are faced with a liquid matrix which makes it very difficult to challenge Google. Pasquinelli asks whether we could not create an open-source page-rank algorithm. Whatever we create, it has to relate to the way Google extracts value. Pasquinelli ends his talk by proposing that maybe the model of CrossRef might be an alternative, or creating a page rank based on trust.

Teresa Numerico, from the university of Rome, gave a very interesting talk on cybernetics, search engines and resistance. With the metaphor of cybernetics, mechanical devices can be described in terms of biological organisms. They are able to self-organize themselves as if they could interact and exchange messages with the environment. In this way we can interpret machines as vehicles of messages (input or output) without questioning what happens with them. Numerico goes deeper into the system of cybernetics as developed by Norbert Wiener. According to Wiener, messages between man and machine, between machines and man and between machines and machines are destined to play an ever-increasing role. Communication can thus be seen as interactive, as the collective possibility of interacting. According to Wiener, information cannot be stored. If we store it, we will depreciate its value, where information is more a matter of process than of storage. Numerico also discusses Joseph Licklider and his ideas concerning the library of the future, consisting of a new form of collecting, of controlling and monitoring the processing of information. After discussing Plato’s Meno dilemma, Numerico describes the elements of a search engine and what makes them similar to the cybernetics metaphor. For the ranking algorithm hypnotizes the self-organization within the network. Google gives us a cognitive pattern or framework that is very strong, which is also shown by research into the information behavior of the researcher of the future (Jan 2008), which shows that horizontal information seeking is all around. Numerico combines this cybernetic search engine perspective with Foucault’s idea of the archeology of knowledge and the definition of the archive. It is obvious that the archive of a society is part of the culture of that civilization. At the same time we now have no control over the meaning of the archive as it is being created. The question is however what we value more, control or communication? Numerico ends by suggesting some actions for resistance against cognitive control (in a Deleuzian fashion):

-Be creative not communicative

-Choose ‘pourparles’ instead of communication

-Close the devices (every now and then)

-Live without leaving (too many) digital traces

-Do not interpret people and the world only according to their digital representations

-Forget or delete digital memories

-Express the living culture; in Fahrenheit 451 people learnt books by hearth

 Other things we might do according to Numerico:

-Stimulate cross generation information literacy and education

-Encourage variation. Variation is the key-factor for the transmission of knowledge and culture: variation vs. standardization: support all different searching technologies. For we need to have different perspectives on technology

-Asses trust and authority by checking a multiple sources through a cross-mediation effort.

Numerico stresses that we should stimulate difference and variation in the creation of the archive by a double-strategy consisting of both logging off on the one side and creating alternatives on the other. She ends by stating that conversation also needs time and relaxation, something we should probably be focusing on more.


One comment on “Society of the Query – Part 1: Lovink, Boutang, Pasquinelli and Numerico

  1. Pingback: Society of the Query – Part 2: Gugerli, Fuller, Manovich, Ludovico, Bruno and Van ’t Hof « OPEN REFLECTIONS

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