Monday, May 27, 2013

A New Topic: Objective Search

Here is a new and different topic for a Philosophy of Computer Science class.

Objective web search-- search that carries no geographic or demographic predilections-- would seem to be critical for research. Google offers the option to turn off search history personalization, and to change the geographic context.  One attractive way to accomplish this would be for the search engine to explicitly list
all the factors at play (date and time, Internet activity, IP address area, recent purchases, social network contacts) in a search, and allow piecewise disabling of the filters.

Two types of parameters affect the results, of course-- the user's demonstrated interests and preferences, maintained in personalization data, and other people's opinions, reflected in the priority of results presented.  Is there any way to request "universal" search, which would return the same results under any circumstances, thwarting both types of parameters?  In the category of others' opinions, the Google algorithm PageRank, determining the order of appearance of retrieved web pages, obviously exerts an enormous influence on what users see.  What kind of factors affect the PageRank algorithm's authority measures?  Would objectivity require forgoing PageRank altogether, and if so, could some other efficient ranking organize the millions of results?  For example, could a known bias in one parameter be offset somehow by a conflicting bias?

Along with the question, "Can we get completely objective results from Internet search engines?", other questions arise:

1. Do students, and even academic staff and sophisticated researchers, understand the implications of personalized search?
2. As a free service, is Google required to provide services and options like this that the public, or the academy, demands?  Should it be treated as a public utility, under regulations that would force it to do so?  If so, how does the international nature of the Internet bear on that treatment and those regulations?

3. Is a "universal" or truly objective point of view for web searches possible, meaningful, desirable?  Is Google responsible for not just reflecting, but successfully defining, such objectivity in its presentations of results?  Is Google responsible for exposing all the factors pertaining to its searching and ranking algorithms?  Does the rise of the Internet affect traditional issues of subjectivity in research?

Under this topic, objective web search, the philosophical subject matter includes ethical and governance issues respecting social justice, as well as, perhaps, the epistemology of the prediction of requests.  The computer science subject matter includes design and analysis of search algorithms, as well as myriad issues regarding efficient distribution and retrieval of data.  The topic invites a multi-disciplinary approach.  The libraries of any educational institution would have cogent contributions to make.  The social sciences could advise on the effects of community, local, and regional factors manifest in socio-economic and business data.  History can tell us of the long-term effects of limited or distorted information.  

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