Knowledge Politics on the Web
Edited by Richard Rogers
- reviewed by David Brake
This collection of academic essays makes a bold claim
on its front cover. "Instead of celebrating the Web and all its
prospects for creative artistry, democracy and e commerce, the volume
authors calmly go backstage. How are search engines, portals, default
settings and collaborative filtering formatting the surfer and offering
passage to the media?"
This is an enticing prospect indeed for anyone interested
in a deeper analysis of the web surfing experience, and indeed the
book delivers the goods in several of the essays provided. As you
might expect of any collection, this is a bit of a mixed bag. Some
of the essays here are lucid and make interesting points, some may
make interesting points but are phrased in the sort of academic-speak
which makes them difficult to grapple with, and a couple, while
potentially interesting, only seem to be marginally related to the
subject under discussion.
For me, the gem of this book is a 22 page essay: "The
Public Good Vision of the Internet and the Politics of Search Engines"
By Lucas Introna and Helen Nissenbaum (and not just because they
cited an article
of mine in their piece!). They look in detail at how through
a combination of market pressures and the use of technologies with
unexpected results "the leading search engines give prominence to
popular, wealthy, and powerful sites at the expense of others."
While they successfully identify the problem, the best they can
do to suggest a solution is to "urge engineers and scientists who
adhere to the ideology of the Web, to its values of inclusivity,
fairness, and scope of representation, and so forth, to pursue improvements
in indexing, searching, accessing, and ranking with these values
firmly in mind."
The essay that follows, "E-Mediation by America Online"
by Korrina Patelis, shows how America Online, while claiming merely
to simplify the Internet for everyday users with no particular view
of its own often restricts them to a narrow, commercially led, selection
The middle of the book includes two technical essays
- one of which is a rather interesting overview of different information
visualization techniques, "Mapping the World Wide Web" by Martin
Dodge. When you're trying to guide people around large amounts of
information (like that available on the Internet) long lists of
links may be the most obvious way of doing it but it is not necessarily
the best. This essay, accompanied by six pages of illustrations
shows how researchers are looking at ways of "flying through" data
in an intuitive way. Of course static illustrations are not a substitute
for being able to try these products out yourselves - fortunately,
the author also has a website
where links to many of these can be found. Still, the essay makes
a good introduction to the subject.
Of the remaining six essays in this book, I will say
little. I suspect that there is some material of real potential
interest in, for example, "Depluralising the Web" by Noortje Marres
& Richard Rogers. They appear to be examining how one can come up
with new ways of determining which websites offer good quality,
relevant material (try looking at web sites that contain a lot of
links from other web sites in a field not just those with lots of
links in general). I fear, however, that I may be substantially
misrepresenting their argument as my brain was frequently switch
off by sentences like "Returning to the info-egalitarianist, the
debatescaping technique redefines inclusion as involvement in an
issue-network, and in critical moments, in a debate."
If you're a professional sociologist, my guess is
that this is likely to be a very worthwhile acquisition. If you're
just a layman interested in the subject, there may still be enough
useful information here to merit the book's purchase - and it's
certainly nicely produced and will impress your friends if you leave
it on your coffee table!
b i o :
David Brake is
a London-based Internet journalist, consultant and educator. He
has written about the Internet and its effect on society since
1994, started one of Britain's most popular Internet sites in
1995 and was involved in the launch of the world's first consumer
digital television project.