Here’s a thing I didn’t expect to see today. A Bing search just outperformed a Google search in relevance. I was looking for a relatively obscure book to reference for an essay I’m writing, and behold!
I’ve been reading anecdotes about deteriorating Google search quality, and I now I have one of my very own to share.
Update: I wondered what would happen if I tried the same search using DuckDuckGo and the results are actually better than Google, too.
None of this proves that these engines are better than Google as a daily driver, of course, but they certainly beat the behemoth in this edge case. With Apple rumored to be working on an alternative search service, too, competition may finally be coming to Mountain View.
Scholars, advocates, and social critics frequently describe data as a structure of power used against citizens and the powerless online. In their article in the most recent First Monday, Miren Gutiérrez and Stefania Milan invert big data, arguing that “Citizens, activists and professionals alike embrace innovative data-related practices at the intersection of the digital and the informational, embedding data and ways of playing with data in their activities.”
Data is undoubtedly used to oppress and exploit, but Gutiérrez and Milan show how it can be used to advocate for the rights of the less powerful, as well. Recent work in critical studies of neoliberalism–I’m thinking about Byung-Chul Han’s ideas, in particular, which are very nicely summarized in the Verso essay collection, Psychopolitics–paints a nearly hopeless picture of privacy in the radically transparent world that social media has wrought. While it does not occupy the same intellectual field, this research introduces a necessary critical counterpoint.
So, full disclosure: I’ve deleted my Facebook account twice in the past 6 years. Last month I came back again after about six months away with a shamefaced grin. It made me sad to think about all of the people I know sharing their lives with one another, without me. If I’m unwilling to let those connections go, then I can’t opt out of Facebook.
Google has the same information, Apple has a lot of it, Samsung now owns a lot of my pressure points, and all of the apps, trackers, and aggregators on my phone, iPad, computers, and web browsers that don’t come from those companies know a lot about me. There’s no way to opt out and no clear way forward for any of us. Is there some combination of open source and paid platforms, along with encryption and data security practices that will save us?
Tonight I was reading a book on indexing and abstracting–Brian O’Connor’s Explorations in Indexing and Abstracting (1996)–and had to stop and think about one of O’Connor’s guiding principles: “a subject is not an inherent element of a text.”
What do you mean? I thought. Doesn’t every text have a subject? Well, first of all, no. Many texts don’t have a subject, or they merely imply a subject, or they contribute to a composite subject. Ok. So then I wondered: isn’t this just hair-splitting? I had to think about it a bit more to realize that O’Connor’s point is bigger than that. The subject does not inhere in the text. You have to examine the text to understand its subject–or lack thereof. You have to master it.
But mastery is something else entirely; something not hair-splitting, but hair-raising. Mastery is the exercise of power.
The huge and ever-expanding power of technology companies in our lives today underlines an enduring cliché: information is power. But raw information is useless. Real power rests in the hands of information brokers: those who can master texts well enough to make the information they contain accessible to those who need it. This is the most significant reason why Google is so powerful. We all desperately want and need the information on the internet, but no one can sort through it all. We need a tool, therefore, that can match the questions in our heads to the answers other people have written down, and Google has done it better than anyone else.
I mention Google and the power of tech companies only to point to my insight from tonight’s reading. As a historian, I have learned all too well that both recording and interpreting information are vital instruments of power. Indexing, abstracting, describing, and organizing are instruments of power, too, which connect the recorders with the interpreters. Because the subject is not inherent in the text, to describe it is to power over both the writer, who may not have meant what the indexer says they did, and the reader, who may not ever be able to understand what the author meant because of the indexer’s choice.
This is an awesome power. It should not be taken lightly.