Digital Literacy
My fourth day without Google.

[Original German Blog Post]

“Ask any kid what Facebook is for and he’ll tell you it’s there to help him make friends. […] He has no idea the real purpose of the software, and the people coding it, is to monetize his relationships. He isn’t even aware of those people, the program, or their purpose. […]
The kids I celebrated in my early books as “digital natives” capable of seeing through all efforts of big media and marketing have actually proven *less* capable of discerning the integrity of the sources they read and the intentions of the programs they use.”

Douglas Rushkoff

Vilém Flusser would have called Google a contraption of the kind that is functionally very simple but structurally highly complex. About such contraptions, Flusser had always warned us: to control these is nearly impossible – too much specialist knowledge from different disciplines would be necessary; to get controlled by them by contrast would be very easy: they are useful to us and easily accessible for everyone – even without expertise.

What is true for using the Internet in general should be important to us for Google in particular. In September, according to Comscore, short of fifty million Germans had accessed Google, which is approximately 90% of Germany’s online population; every single one of these fifty million visitors hit Google’s pages forty times in average. And while most of the users would answer the question on the reason of existence of Google similarly correlated with the benefit for themselves, it becomes obvious, latest with the publication of the quarterly numbers, that Google is in the meanwhile probably the most efficient advertising channel among all media – at least regarding performance.

People behind SEO and SEM have learned to understand Google in that very sense. And to make it thus clear of what kind these search-experts are there is a nice pictorial classification in two wings:
the Black-Hats – the villains from the western, that systematically exploit the weaknesses of the search-algorithms, that are unavoidable with systems that complex, and the White-Hats, how in IT-business such security experts that are the “good” hackers, that should help to stabilise systems with their knowledge are called.

For us users, it does not matter in the end, if we are drawn to some page we would not want to visit by a dark Black Hat, or if a White Hat, an employee of a “respectable search agency” had optimised the search so we would get results we also would not want to get. However the ambiguity of the sound of these terms in the English language is nice: Blackhead and Whitehead are both just acne. That means, also the SEO-Pros, that do perhaps see themselves as the heroes with the white hat, are immediately associated with the nuisance of skin impurities.

“When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.

Digital tools are not like rakes, steam engines, or even automobiles that we can drive with little understanding of how they work. Digital technology doesn’t merely convey our bodies, but ourselves.

At the very least we must come to recognize the biases – the tendencies- of the technologies we are using.”

Douglas Rushkoff goes on.

Digital Literacy does not only consist of knowing the where and how to retrieve relevant information; it is not just about being able to judge a source’s quality or to take care in spreading personal data. Digital literacy means at the very first to distinguish which interests effect the Internet, which intentions lie beneath the offering of certain services, and too comprehend the technological base thereunder.

And in the same way, as we not only learn to hear but also to speak, not only to read but also to write, digital literacy does not get complete before we become not only passive users but take active action. We should all have the capability to do SEO – at least in a basic form. We should utilize the functionality of those contraptions for our means, in the same way the search-engine-optimisation people do, and to take just as good as we can, our share out of these structures.

Or how Benedikt Köhler remarks: “Machines exist to serve us. There is something to learn from culture of the Hacker for media makers: not to submit to the machines, neither reject, but to take advantage of the machines, to even downright exploit them!”

At this moment I am sitting at Schwechat. It is a wonderful autumn day, and today again, as yesterday, it was hardly difficult to keep away from search engines. All links that I would have needed, e.g. to prepare this journey, I found on Wikipedia or was recommended to by my friends.

Read more:
“The Army of Technological Slaves.”

The other posts of my experiment “Without Google”:

  • Everything is turned into a highway
  • Digital Literacy
  • Censorship
  • Orientation with Openstreetmap
  • Valuable recommandations

    and the beginning of the experiment:

  • Without Google
  • Without Google.

    [Read this post in German]

    “The world is not a ball”. The night is made by the shadow, thrown by the mountain of the north. Changing the perspective like shown here, in the “Christian Topography” by Cosmas Indicopleustes. I would probably not have found that via Google.

    Figure from Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography, Ed. J. W. McCrindle, Calcutta 1897

    The strongest arguments prove nothing so long as the conclusions are not verified by experience. Experimental science is the queen of sciences and the goal of all speculation.
    Roger Bacon

    I have made my mind to start an experiment: I shall not use Google’s search from now on.

    Location and occasion that gave birth to this idea was an extended and lively discussion with Benedikt Köhler, Peter T. Lenhart and Sigrid Schwarz that took place last Friday at Galerie Royal – just suited for the following.

    Why did we end up with this idea?

    There is trigger and a cause for my decision. Last Friday I had – like so many times before – tried to find information on a certain product or brand by googeling. Among the first ten pages of hits, that means the first hundred web-sites that Google took for relevant regarding my search, there was not a single link that was truly connected to my search term. Without exception there were just portals for price comparison, portals for recommendations, or retailers – and a random sample of links checked, made it quickly clear that none of the the companies behind the links would in fact offer the thing I was looking for, at all. “Find Machiavelli cheep at eBay”, “Buy house dust mites at best price at Amazon” – this was the catalyst, but nothing more. I do not want to get into a lament on the bad habit of SEO/SEM-industry, that bilk us of our lifetime, and the spam they send us by their creepy and impertinent tricks, wasting our bandwidth. This is all commonplace.

    The cause for my experiment, no longer to search with Google, goes deeper. A search engine takes a word or several words which I put into it and delivers the pages in the Net on which those words can be found – ranked by an algorithm. The search engine is thus the extension of what used to be a book’s index. An index leads me quickly to the things that I already knew. I can retrieve the quotes from a book. However an index does not replace the table of contents, let alone an abstract.

    At first it appears to be a great relief to have information at hands in full text. What really takes place however, is that we just skip our working thoroughly through a topic because we can easily quote and reuse our search results anyway. Instead of risking our own thoughts, we “stand on the shoulders of giants” and these giants appear so overpowering superior that any resistance seems futile. We have so much at our disposition that it feels impossible to contribute anything other then a collage of what already exists. This eclecticism has very well its aesthetic quality. But I personally have an increasingly strong feeling that I do no longer retrieve anything real, and even more, to conceive something, the more I acculturate the technology of search.

    This feeling of worthless waste of time I do not get usually from content that is recommended by my friends on Twitter or Facebook, or that I find on the blogs I regularly read. Often I click on a link in my Twitter timeline without in advance seeing where it will lead to, for it is shortened by bit.ly or similar services and thus I hit the completely new and unexpected, and not rarely, this can go on link by link in directions that I would not have predicted.

    Also what I may find on social information-networks like Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap usually does mean a lot more to me then the algorithmic results of search engines. Not to the least, this is my motivation to contribute myself something I would belief that others might want to find it.

    I do not appreciate total abstinence from the Internet. Fasting does indeed not mean to hunger but to consciously keep within some rules of abstaining from food, and bringing to consciousness what we let go.
    My experiment – no Google, just the Web – shall bring clarity to me very personally, what position search takes for me and how it changes me and my work in the Internet. I will try to report my experiences here.

    Part 2: Valuable recommandations

    The other posts of my experiment “Without Google”:

  • Everything is turned into a highway
  • Digital Litercy
  • Censorship
  • Orientation with Openstreetmap
  • Valuable recommandations

    Further reading:
    The End of History – for creative professionals.
    On Lent
    Slow Media and borrowed time
    “So literature collapses before our eyes” – Non-Commodity Production