A couple of months have lapsed since I read Alex Halavais’s Search Engine Society; in fact, I read it in June while flying to Santa Fe and back. I need to return my copy to the library, and I wanted to post a few brief notes. Search Engine Society is a terrific introduction to search engines. Halavais achieves a nice (and what I would describe as a successful) balance between accessible prose and theoretical rigor. That is, I found the book exceedingly readable, but I could at the same time see frequently enough the theoretical surroundings Halavais brought to bear. Certainly it left me with the impression this book could have been more forwardly theoretical in its examination of search engines, but that it seamlessly achieves both is one reason I will be assigning a chapter for undergraduates this semester and I will likely include the full book this winter in ENGL516: Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice.
At just more than 200 pages, the book includes an introduction and eight chapters: 1. The Engines, 2. Searching (which I will ask students to read in ENGL326: Research Writing), 3. Attention, 4. Knowledge and Democracy, 5. Censorship, 6. Privacy, 7. Sociable Search, and 8. Future Finding. Among Halavais’s opening acknowledgments are that data on searching practices is hard to come by. Public search engines capture a certain amount of data about queries and the IP addresses from which they are made, but we still have much to learn about how search is deployed privately, as when computer users look for files on their hard drives. The coverage of early chapters includes how search engines work, the history of searching the web, the known limitations of presumably whole-web search engines, the web-cultural importance of specialized search engines, crawlers, currency, the rise of social search, and much more. Again, what’s here might seem–to one with an advanced technical understanding of search engines–like a broad survey, but I would add as a counterpoint that there’s plenty here in terms of references and context to prime beginners to these–what I regard as an increasingly important set of issues.
I have adopted Ch. 2 for ENGL326 because it gets into issues of superficial or complacent (i.e., self-satisfied) search. Drawing on work by Hargittai and others, Halavais establishes how willing searchers are to scratch the surface. So, we will seek to extend questions Halavais poses, such as “How can you know which terms, or combination of terms, best targets the information you are after?” into our own work with Search Alerts and RSS. The chapter also gets into the value of serendipity for invention, the limitations of semantic search for different file types, re-finding, the invisible/deep web, “berrypicking” (Bates), and adaptive search: much, in other words, that will be of some use to students concerned with research writing.
Halavais’s last two chapters bear on my research interests, as well. His discussion of sociable search touches upon collaborative filtering and tracing associations and challenges conventional sensibilities about the search engine as an algorithmic mechanism (that subdues agency or that disguises and promotes a malevolent corporate agenda). I appreciated that the book confronts–though perhaps not with especially clear cut solutions–questions of cultural production intrinsic to search engines, e.g., “Who will know?” (190). The “who will know?” question echoed for me with Foster’s “I will not know,” with disciplinary assumptions about the adequacy of search and databases. Halavais concludes the book with the “who will know?” question, noting that “[t]he term ‘search engine’ is far too prosaic for the role that search plays” (190).
“Search personalization represents one of the most active areas of research, but, as with search generally, by privileging certain sources over others there is the danger that a searcher can become trapped by her own search history” (52).
“The internet and the web likewise have been disruptive to the way attention is aggregated and distributed, and so it is worth asking whether there is a similar ‘tyranny of the web'” (58).” Or, for that matter, whether attention fatigue is to blame for the “Death of the Web.” Interesting to think that a preference for a locatable web (via search, via attention-corralled, if gated, networks) yields, if not the death of the web, a catatonic (kata- -tonos), or toned-down, web.