Background and Introduction:
In the last half-century, the world experienced rapid transformations within the personal computer domain as penetrated the office, educational setting, and the home (Levene, 2010). The so-called decade of the World Wide Web from the 90s, however, was especially pivotal to the technological revolution that continues to emerge, increasingly, as one of the core characteristics of the contemporary, globalized society today (Levene, 2010). The frontiers of these rapid developments were search engines that, today, index billions of an assortment of information sources, which, on the other hand, amount to only a fraction of the totality of information accessible on the web. Search engines and related technologies are critical for the smooth operation of the web are uncontestable.
According to Havalais (2008), technologies of information processing, such as search engines, “are inseparable components of the control function, a society’s ability to maintain control at all levels from interpersonal to international relations” on the other hand, that the development and utilization of search engines and appropriate tools and technologies reflect the cultures from which these tools and technologies emerge. Therefore, the overarching implication of the above is that the political, economic, and socio-cultural domains cumulatively provide essential nexuses for the critical examination of the transformational effects of search technologies.
Accordingly, the discussion herein examines the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts and implications of search engines. In this regard, the article finds that both historically and presently. However, individuals have benefited from search technologies. The primary beneficiaries have primarily been the technologies’’ owners and controllers within the corporate and government landscapes. This reality raises several essential disadvantages for ordinary users of search engines. These issues could include attention deficit, corporate monopoly, sociopolitical bias, and the entrenchment of inequitable power relations. Others could consist of information ‘gate-keeping’ and disproportionate outcomes at-risk groups like women and racial and ethnic minorities. Overall, these findings reveal the need for robust discourse of searching ethics.
The Genesis of Research Engines and The Part of Its Historical Trend:
The term ‘search’ can be defined merely as categorizing, structuring, indexing, storage, analyzing, filtering, and retrieving information. In this sense, a search engine can be understood as computer software utilities used to search the web for specific details, or more simply as websites that Internet users utilize to search for content on the web (Van Couvering, 2008). Today’s search engines trace their origins to the late 1950s in the information retrieval research and development work of IBM (Levene, 2010).
This seminal research positioned information retrieval (IR) as a significant field within information and computer sciences since then, but more prominently during the period spanning the decade of 1990s, which, as indicated previously, saw the rapid expansion of the World Wide Web (Tanter, 2014). The vast majority of modern search engines’ information management methods trace back to IR developments during the 1970s and 1980s (Graham, 2014). Notable examples, in this regard, include the SMART (system for the mechanical analysis and retrieval of text) retrieval system, the probabilistic perspective on Web modeling, and the more recent ”data mining perspective on managing web information” (Levene, 2010, p.6).
Figure 1: A simple diagram showing how search engines work by Neil Patel.
- Additionally, a brief review of the history of search engines reveals some notable early and contemporary examples. These include Yahoo search, which commenced operations in February 1994. InfoSeek was also started in 1994 but was later abandoned in 2001. Inktomi was launched in 1995 and was later acquired by Yahoo in 2003. AltaVista commenced in 1995 and was later acquired by Overture in 2003. Ask Jeeves started in 1996 and was acquired by InterActiveCorp in 2005. Overture started as Goto.com in 1997 and was later rebranded into Yahoo Search Marketing in April 2005. Microsoft launched Bing in 2009 and Google, which began in 1998 (Graham, 2014; Levene, 2010; Tanter, 2014; Van Couvering, 2008). Presently, the five most popular and most frequently used search engines are: Google, Microsoft Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, and Yandex.
Who Has Benefited from Its Transformative Effects and Who Has Not?
Notably, a review of extant literature reveals that the primary beneficiaries of search engines’ historical development, as conceptualized above, have primarily been the owners and controllers of said technologies. From a social and political perspective, however, individual users of the web have also seen the accretion of numerous and unprecedented informational advantages. Notably, the use of search engines to retrieve and organize information today is so ubiquitous that it is impossible to imagine life without these interventions.
The retrieval of information from a search engine is dependent on the tree structure of the website, the indexing of keywords, and the SEO operations that have been deployed to ensure that the information is easily visible. A researcher using the internet posts a query, which is returned via the search engine, and the accuracy of results depends on the completeness of the keywords used for the search. Multiple users might be attempting to find similar information, but the lack of appropriate use of keywords could hinder their capabilities in finding efficient results. The SEO skills applied in the backend of a website are essential in determining website availability with specific content to an online user.
Figure 2: Retrieving and Organizing Information (Source: Levene, 2010)
Economically and socially, the most important advantages to the Internet’s user revolve around the knowledge economy and how search engines have been instrumental in building the knowledge and informational capacity that serves an essential function in personal educational and economic empowerment (Hinman, 2008). Moreover, from a political perspective, several studies also provide concrete, empirical evidence regarding the positive impacts of search engines and pertinent technologies on democracy, and more particularly in terms of substantive political participation at the individual level (Lev-On, 2008; Lewandowski, 2014). Nevertheless, current studies on the transformative effects of search engines also prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the vast majority of the economic, social, and political benefits of search technologies are concentrated on the owners and controllers of these tools within the corporate and governmental landscapes.
Notably, while most search engine services are free to the individual consumer, the overwhelming majority of engines store, collate and monetize the data trails associated with all web searches. The providers of search services and enterprises that purchase the search data gain profitably and directly from extensive insights of all users of said services under a ‘winner-takes-all’ system. Individual users do not gain as much substantive economic value from the data they willingly generate and provide (Lewandowski, 2014).
Instead, search engines have the related cost for individuals of precipitating attention-deficit problems. These tools and technologies bombard individuals with unprecedented volumes of information without equally providing the means of enhancing meaningful and positive mechanisms for better processing said information (Havalais, 2009). The winner-takes-all system aforementioned reflects the capitalistic economic and cultural contexts whence search technologies emerge and, therefore, poses the real threat of search engines accentuating extant cultural and socioeconomic disadvantages, particularly among vulnerable groups like women and racial/ethnic minorities (Martey, 2008; Noble, 2018).
Figure 3: Screenshot of Yahoo! Home Page (Source: yahoo.com)
Google Search – the biggest search engine:
Additionally, the rise of big search giants, especially Google, which owns nearly 86.86 percent of the global search market share in 2020 (J. Clement, 2020), also raises significant concerns regarding monopoly and monopolistic practices relating to information control, sociopolitical bias, and information gate-keeping, all of which have negative implications for the individual Internet user (Goldman, 2008; Fry, Virkar, & Schroeder, 2008; Diaz, 2008; Reilly, 2008; Daly, 2014). Governmental authorities also seek to capitalize on the insights generated by search providers and, therefore, utilize pertinent data for their surveillance and law enforcement purposes, both with and without judicial oversight, in turn generating tough questions regarding the potential jeopardy for the privacy of individual search users (Jarret, 2014).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nx48-ZwzVE (Source: Skriverz 2017 Google: How it became the biggest search engine in the world Standard, YouTube Licence).
Personal Perspectives and Conclusion:
More specifically, search engines have had the most pronounced effects on my academic life from a personal perspective. I frequently utilize Google and Bing search to access information requisite on my ordinary and scholarly research endeavors. Although I find these resources immensely important, I am often concerned about the reliability of the search results and information that I retrieve in this manner, considering the issues of potential bias and search engines’ reinforcement of one point of view over plausible others. I attempt to address these issues by consulting various search engine alternatives. However, I often find that the results generated by said alternatives are often mostly consistent with those retrieved from Google and Bing searches. Generally, both scholarly research and my personal experience demonstrate the need for more in-depth searching ethics discourse. Overall, when search engines are explored from the nexuses of the social, cultural, political, and economic transformative effects they generate, it emerges that these technologies could potentially present more disadvantages than benefits.
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