Google, Embeddedness, and De-facto Censorship

December 17, 2008

Chris Soghoian describes how he bumped up against Google’s questionable ad-sense trademark enforcement policies.

Soghoian’s story is troubling and it exposes yet another way in which the structure of web traffic has positioned Google as a de-facto arbiter of all kinds of legal speech, political salience, and good taste. More broadly, it demonstrates how key actors and institutions exercise influence in the networked public sphere.

For more on that idea, check out Matthew Hindman’s research. In his new book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, Hindman makes a related argument in a number of different ways, not the least of which is his compelling notion of “Googlearchy.” I disagree with Matt on a number of substantive points, but the significance of his analysis is undeniable. His work complements more established models for thinking about how social structure circumscribes certain kinds of thought and action.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Internet is that powerful forms of social order & status originate in seemingly innocuous expressions of aggregated opinions (e.g. the PageRank algorithm). Hindman’s work takes on the notion that such aggregated opinions are somehow equivalent to a utopian radical democracy or a free market of ideas.

In this sense, his argument parallels the work of economic sociologists, many of whom have analyzed the importance of the “embeddedness” of economic markets. Simply put, the thesis behind the concept of embeddedness is that the sorts of decentralized, disaggregated behaviors that occur in market-like settings are always an extension of the social and cultural contexts in which they occur. It’s a relatively simple idea, but it violates one of the core assumptions of neo-classical economic theory: that markets are a free and accurate expression of individual actors expressing rational preferences for the enhancement of their own wealth and welfare.

Sociologists such as Viviana Zelizer have shown how the economists’ assumptions break down in markets for deeply valued cultural goods such as intimacy and adoption. More recently, a number of scholars (including Marion Fourcade – a professor of mine at Berkeley) have taken up the idea that financial markets are also expressions of (economists’) cultural preferences and not merely an aggregated form of pure rationality.

Considering Hindman’s work and the continuing emergence of experiences like Soghoian’s, I think there’s a case to be made that research on the embeddedness of search technology might be a promising topic. Granted, I don’t know if there are many “neo-classical” information theorists out there that would be willing to defend the straw-man position that search technology serves up knowledge in a pure and rational form.

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