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This article investigates how the new spirit of capitalism gets inscribed in the fabric of search algorithms by way of social practices. Drawing on the tradition of the social construction of technology (SCOT) and 17 qualitative expert interviews it discusses how search engines and their revenue models are negotiated and stabilized in a network of actors and interests, website providers and users first and foremost. It further shows how corporate search engines and their capitalist ideology are solidified in a socio-political context characterized by a techno-euphoric climate of innovation and a politics of privatization. This analysis provides a valuable contribution to contemporary search engine critique mainly focusing on search engines' business models and societal implications. It shows that a shift of perspective is needed from impacts search engines have on society towards social practices and power relations involved in the construction of search engines to renegotiate search engines and their algorithmic ideology in the future.
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Astrid Mager
How capitalist society shapes search
This article investigates how the new spirit of capitalism gets inscribed in the fabric
of search algorithms by way of social practices. Drawing on the tradition of the
social construction of technology (SCOT) and 17 qualitative expert interviews it dis-
cusses how search engines and their revenue models are negotiated and stabilized in
a network of actors and interests, website providers and users first and foremost. It
further shows how corporate search engines and their capitalist ideology are solidi-
fied in a socio-political context characterized by a techno-euphoric climate of inno-
vation and a politics of privatization. This analysis provides a valuable contribution
to contemporary search engine critique mainly focusing on search engines’ business
models and societal implications. It shows that a shift of perspective is needed from
impacts search engines have on society towards social practices and power relations
involved in the construction of search engines to renegotiate search engines and their
algorithmic ideology in the future.
Keywords search engine; social construction of technology; new spirit
of capitalism; Google; information economy; ideology
(Received 12 September 2011; final version received 12 March 2012)
Yesterday I did an online search on the controversy around biofuels for a project I
am currently working on in Sweden. Like the majority of users, I employed the
search engine Google. I put keywords such as ‘biofuel’ or ‘biofuel debate’ in
the search box and browsed through a couple of websites, mostly going back
and forth to Google. Besides links to research institutions working on biofuels,
informative Wikipedia articles and newspaper debates on societal implications of
biofuels, a range of commercial links were presented to me in the sponsored
search results (the links appearing in the right column or on top of the main,
Information, Communication & Society 2012, pp. 1 19, iFirst Article
ISSN 1369-118X print/ISSN 1468-4462 online #2012 Taylor & Francis
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‘organic search results). Tightly intertwined with my topical interest and my
current location, different biodiesels and bioethanols were advertised to me, all
in Swedish. Biofuel commercials were haunting me through the web from
search engine results to websites and blogs I visited. My need for information
was clearly transformed into a costumer desire that Google tried to satisfy by
showing me commercials related to my own search. More and more of the
same advertisements were supposed to convince me to put a ‘green car’ and
the suitable biofuel in my virtual shopping cart despite the fact that my original
interest involved negative impacts of biofuels on environment and society.
This online search on biofuels points right to the focus of this article, the
tight entanglement of search technology and capitalist society. In the last
decade, search technology underwent a radical process of commercialization
according to Van Couvering (2008). Along with it grew criticisms of the business
models underlying search engines, primarily based on user-targeted advertising
like the one I introduced above. While early critiques of search engines scruti-
nized the increasingly popular PageRank algorithm and the information biases
it constructs at the turn of the century (Introna & Nissenbaum 2000;
Hindman et al. 2003), they switched over to questioning search engines’
models of revenue and profit maximization more recently, as I discuss in the fol-
lowing pages. This research has contributed to a valuable understanding of the
economic dynamics and the ‘capital accumulation cycle’ (Fuchs 2011) search
engines embody and the implications these pose on a societal level. Ro
(2009) and my own work (Mager 2009, forthcoming), however, have shown
that search engines, and Google’s powerful position in particular, are negotiated
and stabilized in social practices.
Building on this line of work, this article seeks to unfold the heterogeneous
network of actors and interests participating in the negotiation of search technol-
ogy. Drawing on the tradition of the social construction of technology (SCOT)
(Bijker et al. 1987) and 17 qualitative interviews with various stakeholders
involved in the development of search engines, I investigate how the capitalist
ideology gets inscribed in search algorithms by way of social practices. I show
how the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ (Boltanski & Chiapello 2007) gets aligned
with and woven into the mathematics of search algorithms and how website pro-
viders and users comply with and stabilize this dynamic. Further, I exemplify
how privately owned search engines and their commercial orientation are
enacted in a socio-political context characterized by a techno-euphoric climate
of innovation, a neoliberal policy of privatization and legal frameworks that
fail to grasp global search technology. This analysis broadens our understanding
of how search technology and its algorithmic ideology are negotiated in a wider
societal context and helps to reconsider its commercial orientation since:
the processes that shape our technologies go right to the heart of the way in
which we live and organize our societies. (...) Understanding them would
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allow us to see that our technologies do not necessarily have to be the way
they actually are. (Bijker & Law 1992, p. 4)
Commercialization of search technology
Having investigated the search engine industry over time, Van Couvering (2008)
argued that search engines started out in the academic realm and got commercia-
lized over time. She identified three chronological periods: in the first period of
‘technological entrepreneurs’ (19941997), a number of search engines
mostly directories at the time developed from the academic discipline of infor-
mation retrieval, a combination of computer and information science. The second
period of ‘portals and vertical integration’ (1997– 2001), which coincided with the
dot-com boom and bust, was characterized by a shift from search engines to
portals such as Yahoo! During this period, developers created content channels
to segment the audience and make lucrative sponsorship deals. An exception
was Google, which introduced its new PageRank algorithm in 1998. The innova-
tive algorithm used the number and quality of links a website gets to evaluate a
website’s value (based on the much older tradition of citation analysis, as Mayer
2009 discussed). In the third period of ‘syndication and consolidation’ (from
2002 onwards), search was passed from media corporations to technology compa-
nies and great revenues were generated from pay-per-click advertising, which
enabled big companies like Google to buy their rivals.
In 2000, Google presented an automated advertising system called AdWords
that targeted advertisements based on users’ searc h terms. Imitating a tec hnology
originally invented by the search engine GoTo Google allowed advertisers to bid
on how much they would like to pay to appear on top of sponsored search results
in relation to individually chosen search terms. While previous business models
were taken over from classical media and hence focused on audiences, such as
those by portals like Yahoo!, the new models had traffic, the flow of visitors
from one website to the other, at the core of their mechanism. Especially,
Google was very successful with its business model based on the ‘traffic com-
modity’ (Van Couvering 2008). Later it began to syndicate cost-per-click adver-
tisements to partner websites through its AdSense program, which allowed
advertisers to relate their advertisements to a website’s content.
The last
decade of search engine history shows that Google has become a big player on
the search engine market because of its PageRank algorithm, and also because
of its clever business strategy. Jarvis (2009, p. 5) described its success as follows:
Google thinks in distributed ways. It goes to the people. There are bits of
Google spread all over the web. About a third of Google’s revenue
expected to total $20 billion in 2008 – is earned not at but
all its sites all over the internet.
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While techno-utopians such as Jarvis have celebrated Google as a new ‘role model’
to follow to become successful, critics have started to scrutinize the multi-faceted
impact Google and other search engines have on our culture and economy (Halavais
2009; Vaidhyanathan 2011
). A major criticism in this body of work concerns the
‘consumer profiling’ conducted by search engines enabling to adjust advertisements
to users’ individual interests. ‘Consumer profiling is broadly defined as an ongoing
distribution and cataloguing of information about desires, habits, and location of
individuals and groups’ (Elmer 2004, p. 9). Based on users’search history, locations
and search terms, search engines develop highly detailed ‘user profiles’ capturing
desires and intentions of individuals and groups of users. Especially, the multitude
of Google services including Google Search, Google Mail, Google Maps, Google
Earth, Google Analytics, Googles recently launched social networking platform
Google+, and its share in the smart phone operating system Android provide a
myriad of ‘data points’ to create detailed user profiles.
These user profiles are
turned into value through selling them to advertising clients. Elmer (2004)
coined this business model the ‘service-for-profile’ model. Users get services for
free, while ‘paying’ with their data.
The concentration and interconnection of large sets of heterogeneous user
data within a single company triggers serious privacy concerns. This aspect
has been conceptualized in the field of surveillance studies, where Google
and other technologies such as social networking platforms is discussed as
new ‘Panopticon’ exerting user surveillance (Elmer 2004). Pasquinelli (2009,
p. 153) further argued that the metaphor of the Panopticon must be reversed:
“Google is not simply an apparatus of dataveillance from above, but an apparatus
of value production from below”. Drawing on Marxian thinking, he elaborated that
Google’s PageRank algorithm exploits the collective intelligence of the web since
each link Google uses to measure a websites’ value represents a concretion of intel-
ligence to create surplus value. Fuchs (2011) further hinted to the importance of
including users’ activities to understand Google’s ‘capital accumulation cycle’.
Google not only exploits website providers’ content, but also users’ practices
and data. It sells the ‘prosumer commodity’ (Fuchs 2011) to advertising clients.
He thus concluded that ‘Google is the ultimate economic surveillance machine
and the ultimate user-exploitation machine’ (Fuchs 2011). The question,
however, is why both website providers and users comply with this scheme of
exploitation and how other socio-political actors stabilize its dynamic within the
broader context of capitalist society? To answer this question, I draw on concepts
developed in the tradition of the SCOT.
SCOT and capitalist spirit
In the late 1980s, a number of scholars started to challenge the idea that
technology development would follow a simple, linear model explaining a
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technology’s trajectory from production to usage. They convincingly demon-
strated that ‘our technologies mirror our societies. They reproduce and
embody the complex interplay of professional, technical, economic, and political
factors’ (Bijker & Law 1992, p. 3). One of the first, by now well-known, case
studies showing how societal values are embedded in technologies was the
analysis of the social construction of the bicycle. Having traced the historic
development of the bicycle, Pinch and Bijker (1987) exemplified that the
bicycle was negotiated and constructed in a complex network of actors and
their interests. The bicycle, as we know it today, may be seen as satisfying
both sporting cyclists with their interest in fast bicycles and the general public
with their interest in safe bicycles. Reaching this compromise was facilitated
in a wider societal context characterized by the emancipation of women
towards the end of the nineteenth century because women became central
users of bicycles at that time. This case study outlined the central analytical
categories for the analysis of the SCOT including the identification of ‘relevant
social groups’ and their interests. Focusing on the economic context, Carlson
(1992) further argued that the failure and success of a technology should be
seen in relation to the ‘frames of meaning’ attributed to a technology and
how they correspond to socio-economic cultures present at a particular point
in time. Edison’s invention of motion pictures, for example, failed because
Edison’s own frame of meaning was deeply anchored in the producer culture
of nineteenth-century America, while Edison’s movie audience and competitors
were part of the twentieth-century consumer culture.
Drawing on this line of work, I elaborate how search engines are negotiated
in a network of actors, interests and practices within contemporary frames of
meaning, the capitalist ideology in particular. According to Boltanski and Chia-
pello (2007, p. 3), ideology is ‘a set of shared beliefs, inscribed in institutions,
bound up with actions, and hence anchored in reality’. With this definition,
they aimed to go beyond the concept of ideology as a moralizing discourse
and argued that ideology is intertwined with and embedded in actual practices,
such as management practices. On the basis of French management literature,
supposed to motivate mangers and their workforce, they elaborated how the
capitalist ideology transformed from the 1960s until the 1990s and culminated
in a globalized capitalism employing new technologies and being dependent on
multinationals’ interests. Coinciding with this shift is a preference for flexible,
mobile and unattached employees, such as those who work at internet companies
in Silicon Valley. The new capitalist spirit has managed to incorporate what Bol-
tanski and Chiapello (2007) coined, the ‘artistic critique’ raised by the generation
of 1968 and the emerging left. The critique of industrial capitalism as hierarch-
ical, dehumanizing and restricting the individual’s freedom, authenticity, auton-
omy, mobility and creativity (compared to the ‘social critique’ focusing on
inequality and class differences). The integration of values like self-management
and flexibility in the workplace helped the new spirit of capitalism to endure. The
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artistic critique may hence be seen as indirectly serving capitalism, which turns
critique itself into a fundamental crisis, as Boltanski and Chiapello concluded.
Google’s success, for example, is built on flat hierarchies, a flexible work
force and a global scale, illustrating central characteristics of the new form of
capitalism very well. Google, however, also well corresponds to the new
mode of exploitation that rose with the new spirit of capitalism. ‘A form of exploi-
tation that develops in a connexionist world that is to say, a world where the realiz-
ation of profit occurs through organizing economic operations in networks’
(Boltanksi & Chiapello 2007, p. 355; italics in original). Rather than taking
over classical business models based on audiences (such as portals that collapsed
during the dot-com crash), Google followed a new business model based on the
‘traffic commodity’ (Van Couvering 2008). Contrary to Edison, who failed to
understand the economy of the day when developing motion pictures, Google
succeeded with aligning its technology with a business model that perfectly
fits the ‘connexionist world’ and its ‘global informational network capitalism’
(Fuchs 2010a). ‘Google thinks in distributed ways’, as Jarvis (2009) argued.
How search engines and their capitalist ideology are stabilized in social practices
will be elaborated in the analysis by focusing on “relevant social groups” and their
interests involved in the construction of search technology.
Study and methods
The empirical basis for this analysis consists of 17 qualitative expert interviews.
Following the method of theoretical sampling, I identified central actors involved
in the development of search technology. Theoretical sampling is a method from
the Grounded Theory methodology (Glaser & Strauss 1968) and enables the
researcher to choose new research participants and data sources on the basis
of data gathered earlier in the research process. I started this process with tech-
nical people including computer scientists, programmers, software developers
and people working in information retrieval (mainly from big, universal
search engines); six interviews altogether. To go beyond the technical realm
and investigate how search technology is shaped by the broader societal
context, I identified further actors on the basis of dominant issues discussed in
the first interviews including search engines’ business models, privacy issues,
media debates and legal frameworks. Accordingly, I interviewed an expert in
search engine optimization (SEO), an economic journalist, a net activist, a
jurist and two policy-makers concerned with search technologies; also six inter-
views. My interviewees were partly from the United States-American context,
where most big search companies are developed and based (primarily the first
category of interviews with technical people) and the German context to
cover the European perspective and challenges global search technology pose
in local socio-political contexts (especially the latter category of interviewees).
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Finally, I interviewed five scholars working on search engines and their societal
implications as contextual material to saturate my data (both from the United
States and Germany, and one from Ireland). Given the dominant role Google
plays on the search engine market, these interviews strongly circulated around
Google, but not exclusively.
All 17 interviews were conducted between October 2010 and February
2011, half of them were carried out face to face and the other half using
video Skype. The qualitative, in-depth interviews were structured using a list
of questions that ensured the comparability of the interviews, yet left enough
flexibility for individual viewpoints of my interviewees and their different back-
grounds (Flick 2009). The interviews were fully transcribed, coded and analysed
along actors and interests involved in the social construction of search engines.
The coding scheme, comprising categories and sub-categories, was developed
with the qualitative text analysis software Atlas T.I. and followed the Grounded
Theory approach (Glaser & Strauss 1968).
Empirical analysis: Algorithmic ideology
My actor- and interest-centred analysis clearly shows that engineers, website
providers and users were considered the most dominant ‘relevant social
groups’ in search engine development. One-third of the interviewees described
engineers as the central driving force, the ‘people who architect the code’ (soft-
ware developer). Others mentioned website providers, who create websites and
link connections the search algorithm needs to index, rank and display results
according to keywords. Moreover, users and automated user feedback in form
of data traces were seen as central driving force since search results are increas-
ingly adapted to users’ interests, locations and desires. An information retrieval
expert described the ‘customization’ of search results like this:
Imagine you’re a spy and you’ve been watching these people their whole life.
You know everything about them, everything they’ve eaten, every place
they’ve gone to, and if you imagine, if you see them sit down at a computer
and they’re about to do a search and if they have a query, let’s say it’s very
vague of a query in general, but given all the context and everything you
know about them you can probably still provide very good results.
In reply to my question what ‘good results’ means in this context the interviewee
explained that the quality of search results is evaluated according to standardized
measures including ‘ranking evaluation methods’ and ‘user-driven matrixes’.
This quotation clearly exemplifies the engineer-driven logic underlying the con-
struction of search algorithms. Having grown out of the academic field of infor-
mation retrieval search engines clearly incorporate what Vaidhyanathan (2011)
coined ‘techno-fundamentalism’.
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In the last decade, however, the techno-fundamentalist ideology got more
and more aligned with and overshadowed by the capitalist ideology.
is not just search, in fact Google is not primarily search, it’s advertising,
right?’ (search engine scholar). Most engineers are working for privately
owned, for-profit companies such as Google, the search engine centrally dis-
cussed in the interviews. Accordingly, website providers’ and users’ activities
do not only serve refinements of the algorithm, but also the generation of
profit. Website providers’ content and users’ data are exploited by Google to
create surplus value, as argued earlier (Pasquinelli 2009; Fuchs 2011). Google
thus perfectly corresponds to the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ and the new mode
of exploitation that arose in the ‘connexionist world’ (Boltanski & Chiapello
2007). User data were described as ‘goldmine’ in this respect because it
enables search engines to relate advertisements to users’ interests and desires
especially when coming from multiple search tools and services provided by
a single company. ‘I do get Google’s value isn’t in its algorithms anymore, it’s
in its databases, its consumer data’ (search engine scholar). Google is particularly
successful with its business model, but other search engines Microsoft’s Bing
was dominantly mentioned in the interviews and social networking platforms
have adopted similar modes of exploitation (Fuchs 2010b). I discuss below how
both website providers and users comply with and stabilize search engines and
their ‘service-for-profile’ model in their practices.
Website providers and users stabilizing capitalist spirit
Website providers aim to gain visibility in the multitude of web information and
reach users to communicate their content. Users, in turn, want to conveniently
find information meeting their needs. Search engines have managed to satisfy
both website providers’ and users’ needs with their services. Especially,
Google has become an ‘obligatory passage point’ website provider and users
have to pass to reach their own goals (Mager 2009; Ro
¨hle 2009). As a conse-
quence, providers and users of web information solidify search engines and
their capitalist ‘spirit’ both consciously and unconsciously.
To achieve their aim of gaining visibility, website providers have started to
use techniques of SEO. Especially, commercial websites trying to market their
products, services and ideas employ SEO strategies to improve their rank in
search engine results, because ‘a higher ranking is a lot of money sometimes’
(computer scientist). They adapt and optimize their sites to be found, indexed
and displayed more easily in the result lists. An SEO professional explained
the importance to be visible to the ‘right audience’:
It really doesn’t matter if you’re visible in a search engine if it’s for the wrong
things. The worst example is your website is number one for Britney Spears,
but you’re a B-to-B software company. That doesn’t really help you.
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This quotation shows how carefully websites are adapted to search algorithms
these days. It illustrates that website providers not only provide content and
links search engines use to index the web, but also deliberately please search
engines by designing their sites according to search algorithms. These ‘good’
SEO practices of optimizing websites are stabilizing the technology Google
even suggests certain SEO practices and webmaster tools on its website.
trary, ‘bad’ SEO including spamming techniques and other illicit practices used
to push up websites in search results threaten to destabilize the technology.
Accordingly, search engines such as Google have started to respond by ‘punish-
ing’ websites by excluding them from the index (Ro
¨hle 2009). My interviewees
described the battle between search engines and marketers as ‘war’:
So there’s definitely a kind of, ah, a kind of a war going on between the
search engine and the marketers, marketers are pressuring the search
engines to be more crafty, more authentic in how they rank. (Information
retrieval expert)
This warlike relation shows how marketing strategies alter search algorithms by
forcing engineers to ‘tweak’ the algorithm to maintain the quality of search
results a central precondition for its own ‘capitalist accumulation cycle’
that requires user traffic. Website providers’ strategies of gaining user, or
rather customer attention, may be seen as intervening in and stabilizing the
mathematics of the algorithm. Moreover, their marketing practices contribute
to a commercialization of organic search results because optimized, often com-
mercial websites tend to get a better presence in search results than smaller, non-
profit websites in certain issue areas such as health (Mager 2010).
Similarly, users’ practices stabilize search engines and their exploitation
scheme. ‘I know Google and others always say well you can always opt out,
but no one really knows that that’s even an option. This and they don’t even
know that they’re tracked’ (computer scientist). This quotation hints to a
typical characteristic of the new spirit of capitalism. ‘Very long chains, compris-
ing a large number of mediations that are difficult to relate to one another, are
often required to level an accusation of exploitation’ (Boltanski & Chiapello
2007, p. 373). Users’ ignorance, partly achieved by search engines’ hidden,
‘spy-like’ ways of operation, is an essential element in the stabilization of
search algorithms and their economic logic. The default settings primarily
serve the search engines’ interest in collecting data rather than users’ interest
in protecting their privacy and thus ‘inevitably entrench economic and political
interests (...)’ (Elmer 2004, p. 26). Privacy concerned users who try to opt out
of the system by reconfiguring browsers, turning off cookies and using other
tools of ‘digital self-defence’ (net activist) experience barriers too.
Similar to
website providers who do not play by the rules, users who try to opt out of
the system are disciplined by search engines:
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We’re caught up in a physical exchange, yeah, (...) you’re giving that infor-
mation in exchange for the service, and you’re punished if you don’t say yes.
Not punished in a negative way, but punished with less than other people
have. (Search engine scholar)
This quotation illustrates that users are willing to enter alliances with search
engines to reach their goal of conveniently finding web information they want
partly motivated by search engines’ system of ‘punishments and rewards’
¨hle 2009, 2010). Their practices, in turn, contribute to improvements of
search algorithms, and also to the ‘service-for-profile model’ Google, and
others, performs.
Finally, both website providers and users stabilize search engines and their
business models with their own advertising and consumer practices. Besides
SEO strategies, marketers also pay money to be present in sponsored search
results related to specific keywords. Their advertising strategies figure as a
necessary precondition for search engines’ business models. Users, however,
also play a central role in maintaining this dynamic according to a computer
scientist: ‘the raw data, I know it’s a very narrow measurement, shows that
people are very much interested in those kind of ads’. One may argue that
more than 60 per cent of internet users do not distinguish between organic
and sponsored search results, as a study suggests (Fallows 2005), and thus
click on the advertisements. But one may also argue that search engines actually
well correspond to the dominant cultural frame of consumerism. A graduate
student in human-centred design and engineering put it like this:
Obviously they’re pushing this information at us as quickly as they can, but
the reason they’re pushing this information at us is because we’re gobbling it
up. I mean, we’re consumers, and we’re also producers. I think the driving
force behind this information economy is our, kind of, probably, possibly a
little bit unhealthy desire to just keep consuming, and communicating, and
producing at such a frenzy rate.
According to Bauman (2007) our society shifted from a society of producers to a
society of consumers: ‘“Consumerism” arrives when consumption takes over that
linchpin role which was played by work in the society of producers’. (Bauman
2007, p. 28). Search engines may be seen as having perfectly incorporated this
shift because advertising, an essential part of consumerism, lies at the heart of
search engines and their revenue models. ‘New needs need new commodities;
new commodities need new needs and desires’ (Bauman 2007, p. 31). Website
providers and users stabilize this dynamic with their need for profit
maximization and desire ‘to keep consuming’ (both search services and the
products they advertise). An information retrieval expert hence concluded:
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Search engines are strongly advertising- and marketing-driven. And thus, if
you think about it, a product of an interest group, which is extremely unpro-
ductive, at least in a materialist sense, which only sells air in fact.
All these examples show how the capitalist spirit gets embedded in search algor-
ithms by way of social practices. Both website providers and users should not
merely be seen as victims of search engines and their new modes of exploitation.
Rather, they should be conceptualized as actively stabilizing the technology with
their marketing, search and consumer practices partly consciously, partly
unconsciously. This implies that both actor groups would also have the power
to destabilize search engines and their new exploitation modes because ‘there
is always the possibility of resistance that calls into question the power relation-
ship’ (Castells 2009, p. 11), as I discuss in the conclusions. Resistance, however,
would be facilitated by a socio-political context, which critically examines search
engines and the capitalist ideology it embodies. Currently though socio-political
actors stabilize for-profit search engines rather than destabilizing them.
Culture of innovation and politics of privatization
Besides the core actor-network of engineers, website providers and users, the
broader societal context competitors, mass media, policy and legal frame-
works was described as shaping search technology. When talking about com-
petitors, my interviewees dominantly referred to upcoming search engines such
as Bing, but also social media such as Facebook and Twitter supposed to change
search algorithms due to their ‘real time information’ (computer scientist). The
relation between different internet businesses was basically described as a ‘fight
for data and users’ (computer scientist) to gain market share mirroring the capi-
talist ideology of competition and profit maximization. Google’s investment in
the smart phone operating system Android was described as a clever move to
build alliances with competitors such as mobile phone companies. It enabled
Google to extend its power of default, its power of being the default search
engine in users’ devices and practices, to the mobile phone market.
Mass media was conceptualized as further stabilizing Google, and others, by
providing the breeding ground for a techno-utopian culture of innovation. The
media was seen as a central actor in solidifying contemporary consumer
culture by constantly featuring new services, products and ultimately companies
together with advertising campaigns. Alternative technologies and open source
developments, on the contrary, are rarely presented and discussed, as the econ-
omic journalist argued. Critical media coverage, in contrast, was seen as poten-
tially destabilizing big players. My interviewees referred to the controversies
around Google China and Google Street View that threatened Google’s ‘brand
value that always kind of relied on its ethical nature’ (search engine scholar).
While Google’s activities in China were globally discussed, Google Street
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View was most critically discussed in European media. In Germany, where parts
of my interviews were conducted, these debates culminated in a ban of Google
cars in certain cities. Furthermore, Google introduced the possibility to censor
one’s face and property in the Street View program (assuming users are aware of
the possibility). This clearly shows that the media participates in the shaping of
search engines. It further shows that local media debates mirror local value
systems. Especially privacy and data protection are differently conceptualized
in Europe and the United States. A German politician from the liberal party
said in this context:
Well, I see that in Germany in particular, or let’s say in the German speak-
ing-European context, this distrust of uncontrollable companies, which are
not subject to the German or European data protection law and make profit
with our data.
The politician from the German Green party said he expects more critical debates
on internet services and privacy in the future, not least due to more ‘scandals’.
Mass media was seen as playing a central role in this development, but also edu-
cational institutions, net activists and public campaigns were mentioned in this
respect. Just recently Google’s new privacy policy and terms of service,
Google to integrate data collected from other services including Google Mail,
Google Maps, YouTube, the social networking site Google+,GooglesAndroid
mobile phones and many more to target search results and advertisements to
users’ interests and desires, triggered heavy criticism on a range of German
blogs and critical media, for example. The overall techno-euphoric tone and
culture of innovation created by the majority of mainstream media, however,
makes the media rather an ally in the stabilization of big, for-profit search
engines, than a guardian of socio-cultural values.
Finally, politics was described as a central actor stabilizing search engines and
their capitalist ideology. A search engine scholar clearly argued that we should
not ‘blame Google’:
The need for search has existed at least since the 80s and under a neoliberal
moment, there is, we are to blame for not having collectively put the public
pressure on that (...) and it could all have been quite cheaply publicly funded
and it would be publicly accessible. But we didn’t do this. So along comes a
private firm that’s doing it. So we, at a neoliberal moment, have passed it to
this private corporation, which seemed a very tiny, little start-up and now is,
arguably one of the most important institutions on the planet.
At a later point he added that Europe seems to ‘have completely bought into this
Americanized model of how it happens’. This quotation clearly shows how the
politics of privatization solidifies corporate, for-profit search engines such as
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Google. In an age where more and more societal areas have been passed to the
free market not least to save money and raise efficiency on parts of govern-
ments search technology is one more area that is permeated by the capitalist
ideology. The politics of privatization led to policy’s loss of control over the gov-
erning of search technology and the societal implications they pose in terms of
privacy and data protection. ‘Public services and the state’ are ‘missing from
the debate’ (Van Couvering 2008). Particularly, the global character of the
new spirit of capitalism triggers crucial problems in terms of setting legal
limits, as the liberal politician admits: ‘Well, that’s one of the basic problems
we are facing as a legislator, that ah, everything that relates to the internet is
no longer tangible by national jurisdiction’.
Data protection and privacy were repeatedly mentioned in the interviews as
a good example of the way global search technology affects and partly contradicts
local regulations. The global scale of search engines with computer servers
storing data all over the world let user data and their commercial exploitation
widely escape national jurisdiction. Since existent regulations have become
partly futile in global capitalism, new regulations would need to be developed
reaching across national borders. Especially, Europe with its stricter privacy
regulations is invited to take in a stronger role in this respect because we
already saw that European data held by US companies is often protected to a
greater degree and that, at some point, it becomes more expensive for com-
panies to do double standards than to just provide the same level of protec-
tion for all their users. (Search engine scholar)
The European Commission and the internet Governance Forum,
an initiative by
the UNO, were mentioned as primary institutions supposed to take action in
terms of data protection. In Germany, the Enquete Commission on ‘internet
and Digital Society’
was formed by the German parliament to discuss how
to proceed with questions related to the internet and data protection, copyright
issues, international trade and net neutrality. Google’s new privacy policy and
terms of service will serve as a good test case since they may happen to contradict
the EU’s new data protection regulation according to a German net activist
They signify a shift from search engines as single entities towards
search engines as a network of services accumulating and centralizing user
data. Whether the EU will react against the new settings will be seen in the
upcoming months. In general, lawsuits were considered as the most effective
way to create limits for search engines because ‘internet businesses are all
based on transgressing the law’ the journalist reasoned referring to YouTube
and Google Books.
Similar to challenges involved in the global fight against climate change, the
road to a global internet policy was imagined to be long and rocky because pol-
itical bodies are slow and often lack technical expertise. ‘By the time government
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decides how to regulate the technology that we’re using now we’ll actually have a
whole different set of technologies that we are integrating’ (computer scientist).
Furthermore, interests of states and search companies partly overlap in terms of
data collection because states also fall back on user data for purposes of law
enforcement in post-9/11 surveillance societies Kurz and Rieger (2011)
argued in the German context. Consequently, more hybrid forums would be
needed in the future where politicians, jurists, computer scientists, net activists,
privacy experts and stakeholders from civil society come together to reach a
common understanding of current challenges and future developments in
terms of search the jurist concluded.
Drawing on the tradition of the SCOT, this article showed how the ‘new spirit of
capitalism’ (Boltanski & Chiapello 2007) gets inscribed in the fabric of search
algorithms by way of social practices. I elaborated how the ‘techno-fundamental-
ist’ ideology gets aligned with the capitalist ideology and exploitation schemes of
the ‘connexionist world’. Furthermore, I discussed how both website providers
and users stabilize the algorithmic ideology by entering alliances with search
engines to reach their own goals also achieved by search engines’ clever
‘system of punishments and rewards’ (Ro
¨hle 2009, 2010). Finally, I exemplified
that for-profit search engines and their capitalist spirit are solidified by mass
media providing a techno-euphoric culture of innovation and policy pursuing a
politics of privatization. This analysis provides a valuable contribution to contem-
porary search engine critique mainly focusing on search engines’ business models
and societal implications, as discussed at the beginning of this article.
My research suggests shifting the focus of attention from impacts search
engines have on society towards social practices and power relations involved
in the construction of search engines. Search engines should not be seen as
merely overruling or ‘exploiting’ society, but rather as being enacted and stabil-
ized in contemporary society and its dominant ‘frame of meaning’ (Carlson
1992), the new spirit of capitalism. This shift of perspective enables us to under-
stand that search technology, as every other technology, could be otherwise. If
website providers or users broke out of the core network dynamic, the power
of search engines and their schemes of exploitation would fall apart. If mass
media and activists initiated a more critical debate about search engines and
the myriad of data they collect, store and process, big players such as Google
would be destabilized. Finally, if politics and law took on a stronger role in
the negotiation of search technology, limits would be set regarding the fight
over user data search engines, and also social networking platforms like Facebook
perform day by day. Since all these actors participate in the negotiation of search
engines within the broader context of capitalist society, they all have the power to
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renegotiate search engines, start off social or political interventions and pave
the way towards change. ‘When resistance and rejection become significantly
stronger than compliance and acceptance, power relationships are transformed’
(Castells 2009, p. 11).
To exert this power of resistance, however, certain steps are necessary. First,
it is essential to understand that privately owned search engines benefit from our
marketing strategies, consumer desires, ignorance, compliance, innovation
fetish, politics of privatization and, most of all, globalized capitalism that increas-
ingly escapes local socio-political cultures and frameworks. It is important to see
that our own actions and willingness to be seduced by search engines and their
convenient services help to stabilize search engines and the commodification of
information (Mager 2010, forthcoming) and user data they trigger (Fuchs 2011).
We have to understand that global capitalism benefits from states’ inability, and
partly unwillingness, to govern and regulate for-profit search engines and to
finance research on alternative technologies. Bauman (1998, p. 42) argued
that ‘far from acting as cross-purposes and being at war with each other, the
political “tribalization” and economic “globalization” are close allies and fellow
conspirators’. This article gave some insights in tensions and conflicts of interests
between global search technology and local debates and regulations. More
research is needed on the way United States-American search engines relate
to European/local laws and cultural value systems. Europe and its critical
perspective or ‘unique capacity to grumble’ (Lovink 2009, p. 51) is especially
invited to see itself as central part of the picture rather than on the edge.
Whether the newly founded research institute “Alexander von Humboldt
Institute for internet and Society” in Berlin,
sponsored by Google, is an
appropriate way to pursue this undertaking or whether it may end up further
stabilizing Google and its ‘ethical brand value’ remains to be seen.
Second, more hybrid forums are needed where heterogeneous expertise
could be bundled and a common ground for future developments and challenges
in the field of search engines could be found both at a global and at a local
level. Since search engines and their capitalist orientation are collectively stabil-
ized, a collective effort involving different actors and interests is required to
think about alternative ways of search engine construction. Political expertise
should be bundled with legal advice, and also technical know-how lacking so
far. Net activists could provide a valuable contribution to the dialogue, and
also engineers, journalists, educational institutions and proponents from civil
society. Vaidhyanathan (2011) imagined a ‘human knowledge project’ to
approach the ‘task of organizing the world’s information and making it univer-
sally accessible in’ a non-corporate way. The field of science and technology
studies offers more classical ways of governing technology. Public participation
events may be carried out to raise awareness about search engines and their
commercial orientation. Moreover, focus group discussions with different
stakeholders and decision-makers may be conducted to think about ways of
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embedding and shaping global search technology in local socio-political cultures.
Whatever the concrete measures for renegotiating the future of search techno-
logy may be this article showed that a switch of perspective is needed to recon-
sider search technology and its algorithmic ideology first.
The research for this article was funded by HUMlab, Umea
˚University, Sweden
(postdoctoral fellowship from 2010 to 2012). I am grateful to Patrik Svensson for
the great support that facilitated my research. Further, I thank my HUMlab
colleagues and participants of the ‘Marie Jahoda Summer School of Sociology’
(University of Vienna, 2011) and Sighard Neckel, in particular, for their
helpful suggestions and comments on my project. Finally, I also thank all my
interviewees for having shared their experiences and opinions on search
engine development with me and Ken Hillis, who inspired me to the title of
this article Algorithmic Ideology.
1 More information on Google AdWords and AdSense could be found
on Google’s website: (10
March 2012).
2 Furthermore, K. Hillis, M. Petit and K. Jarrett presented parts of
their analysis on knowledge and power in the contemporary
‘culture of search’ at the AoIR conference in Gothenburg, 2010.
Their book Google and the Culture of Search is supposed to be published
by Taylor and Francis in 2012.
3 The great detail of user profiles has become clear during the release of
three months of search engine data by AOL in 2006. See, for example,
The New York Times article ‘A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No.
2FC345B0C7A8CDDA10894DE404482 (10 March 2012).
4 All quotations from German interviewees presented in the empirical
analysis have been translated into English by the author.
5 Internet companies’ strong belief in information technology and
capitalism has also been coined ‘Californian Ideology’. Boltanski and
Chiapello (2007), however, have shown that the fundamental shift
the capitalist ideology has been undergoing reaches far beyond the
Californian border.
6 Google’s webmaster guidelines:
webmasters/bin/ and Google Analytics’ web-
master tools:
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3Fhl%3Den&hl=en (10 March 2012).
7 The Firefox Add-on ‘TrackMeNot’ or the search engine ‘Scroogle’ are
valuable exceptions because they allow users to employ the full ser-
vices, while anonymizing search queries and messing up user profiles
at the same time. URLs:
addon/trackmenot/ and (10 March 2012).
8 Google’s new privacy policy and terms of service, starting from 1
March 2012 onwards: (10
March 2012).
9 Internet Governance Forum:
(10 March 2012).
10 German Enquete Commission, ‘Internet and Digital Society’: http:// (10 March 2012).
11 Article on Google’s new privacy policy and terms of service on Netz- (in German):
user-komplett-uberwachen/ (10 March 2012).
12 Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society: http:// (10 March 2012).
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Astrid Mager currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of
Technology Assessment (ITA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, in Vienna. She
has a PhD in philosophy from the Department of Social Studies of Science,
University of Vienna, where she finished her dissertation ‘Mediated Knowledge’
in 2010. Her current research interests include search engines at the intersection
of global capitalism and local socio-political cultures, information politics on
the web, digital methods, as well as new media and knowledge production in a
more general sense. She has published in a variety of journals including Policy
& Internet,New Media & Society, and Science Studies. She blogs at http://www. and tweets @astridmager. Address: Institute of Technology
Assessment (ITA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Strohgasse 45/5, A-1030
Vienna. [email:]
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Meistgenutzte Suchmaschine, weltgrößter Datensammler, teuerstes Medienunternehmen - es liegt nahe, »Google« als Supermacht zu bezeichnen. Und doch greift diese Beschreibung zu kurz. Unter Bezug auf Michel Foucault sowie die Akteur-Netzwerk-Theorie entwickelt Theo Röhle ein präzises, relationales Verständnis von Macht, das den Blick auf die vielfältigen Interaktionen der beteiligten Akteure öffnet und ein komplexes System von Verhandlungen zutage fördert. Eine zeitgemäße Analyse digitaler Medienmacht an der Schnittstelle von Medienwissenschaft, Informationswissenschaft und Surveillance Studies.
In the beginning, the World Wide Web was exciting and open to the point of anarchy, a vast and intimidating repository of unindexed confusion. Into this creative chaos came Google with its dazzling mission-"To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible"-and its much-quoted motto, "Don't be evil." In this provocative book, Siva Vaidhyanathan examines the ways we have used and embraced Google-and the growing resistance to its expansion across the globe. He exposes the dark side of our Google fantasies, raising red flags about issues of intellectual property and the much-touted Google Book Search. He assesses Google's global impact, particularly in China, and explains the insidious effect of Googlization on the way we think. Finally, Vaidhyanathan proposes the construction of an Internet ecosystem designed to benefit the whole world and keep one brilliant and powerful company from falling into the "evil" it pledged to avoid.
At the heart of [Google] is the PageRank algorithm that Brin and Page wrote while they were graduate students at Stanford in the 1990. They saw that every time a person with a Web site links to another site, he is expressing a judgment. He is declaring that he considers the other site important. They further realized that while every link on the Web contains a little bit of human intelligence, all the links combined contain a great deal of intelligence – far more, in fact, that any individual mind could possibly posses. Google's search engine mines that intelligence, link by link, and uses it to determine the importance of all the pages on the Web. The greater the number of link that lead to a site, the greater its value. As John Markoff puts it, Google's software "systematically exploits human knowledge and decisions about what is significant". Every time we write a link, or even click on one, we are feeding our intelligence into Google's system. We are making the machine a little smarter – and Brin, Page, and all of Google's shareholders a little richer. — Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch 1 Abstract The origin of Google's power and monopoly is to be traced to the invisible algorithm PageRank. The diagram of this technology is proposed here as the most fitting description of the value machine at the core of what is diversely called knowledge economy, attention economy or cognitive capitalism. This essay stresses the need of a political economy of the PageRank algorithm rather than expanding the dominant critique of Google's monopoly based on the Panopticon model and similar 'Big Brother' issues (dataveillance, privacy, political censorship). First and foremost Google's power is understood from the perspective of value production (in different forms: attention value, cognitive value, network value, etc.): the biopolitical consequences of its data monopoly come logically later. This essay advances three main arguments in relation to the 'Google economy' by focusing respectively: value production, value accumulation and value re-appropriation. First, Google's Page Rank is introduced as the best implementation of the diagram of cognitive capitalism. This cognitive and economic diagram actually reverses the Panopticon diagram of Foucauldian lineage: it is not simply an apparatus of surveillance or control, but a machine to capture living time and living labour and to transform the common intellect into network value. Dataveillance is then made possible only thanks to a monopoly of data that are previously accumulated through the PageRank algorithm. Second, this model of cognitive hegemony needs a new theory of cognitive rent to be understood, as it is based on the exploitation of a new mediascape for the collective intelligence that is only apparently free and open. Google is defined as a parasite of the digital datascape as, on one hand, it provides benevolent free services but, on the other hand, it accumulates value through a pervasive platform of web advertisement (Adsense and Adwords). More importantly, Google establishes its own proprietary hierarchy of value for each node of the internet and becomes then the first systematic global rentier of the common intellect. Third, a political response can be conceptualised and organised only by reversing the chain of value production (blatantly: 'Reclaiming your page rank') instead of indulging in a nominal resistance to the 'digital Panopticon'.
This article posits a ???mutual fit??? between consumer culture and the task posed to individuals under conditions of modernity: to produce for themselves the continuity no longer provided by society. It therefore explores the new forms of consumption formed from a shift from the functionality of needs to the diffuse plasticity and volatility of desire, arguing that this principle of instability has become functional to a modernity that seems to conjure stability out of an entire lack of solidity.