Finding God in Texas

This was supposed to be the first of my post-MW2013 posts, wrapping up the conference and starting to pull together the underlying themes and ideas that emerged for me during the week in Portland. And then I arrived in Texas, and Google brought me God in the form of a thousand search results; an unexpected kind of creeping normalcy that painted the world a different colour to the way I usually see it. So I thought I’d detour from plan and spend a couple of minutes thinking about some of the immediate questions that this raised for me.

When I search on almost any issue back in Australia, I don’t get a lot of religion in my results. I don’t know whether it’s because we are a largely secular country, or because the profile of people whom otherwise “look” like me to Google (ie, using a Mac, female) in Australia aren’t very religious. Therefore, to look into the Google mirror and find the results reflected back at me so distorted from their usual bent, and from my sense of self, was somewhat jarring. In The Filter Bubble Eli Pariser comments that “from within the bubble, it’s nearly impossible to see how biased it is.” (10) What I think I’ve experienced here in Texas is my first real opportunity to look at the search results presented to me from beyond my normal cocooned perspective. The sensation grates.

It also raises interesting questions for me about the idea of a canon of knowledge, because these kinds of personalised results surely make it much harder to form an agreed-upon body of ideas or frame of reference for history, much less the present. (This is something that Danny Birchall and I touched lightly on in our Museums and the Web paper about curating the digital world.)

I am not even close to making sense of what these kinds of distorting lenses mean for us in museums, but here are some first thoughts. We are all now at the mercy of these kinds of algorithms, because they are in some ways a necessary strategy for coping with the scale of non-hierarchical online information; whether we work in museums or not. The information we have access to, then, is rarely going to be everything we might need or want. This is ok, I think. It’s surely always been the case that with so much information in the world only some has been esteemed over others.

But the perniciousness of algorithmic invisibility, that it is next to impossible to understand how and where those non-neutral search engine biases comes from, seems to present museums with both a challenge and an opportunity. By declaring where our own knowledge is drawn from as it relates to the collection or otherwise, or acknowledging when it is missing or known to be incomplete, we gain the opportunity to act as a different voice within the digital space, with different interests and values. In addition, utilising such an approach could enable those who use our resources to both provide other perspectives by knowing where our conclusions were drawn from.

What do you think? Is this an issue that museums need to tackle, and if so, how should it affect their approach to knowledge sharing and gathering?

Should museums just give up now and let Google take responsibility for knowledge?

Wow – so the introduction of Google Knowledge Graph today has some fascinating implications for museums, knowledge, and everything else. As the Mashable account of the new move by the company explains:

Starting today, a vast portion of Google Search results will work with you to intuit what you really meant by that search entry. Type in an ambiguous query like “Kings” (which could mean royalty, a sports team or a now-cancelled TV show), and a new window will appear on the right side of your result literally asking you which entity you meant. Click on one of those options and your results will be filtered for that search entity.

…In addition to the window which will help users find the right “thing,” Google will also surface summaries for things, which, again, will try to be somewhat comprehensive by tapping into the various databases of knowledge. A search for Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, will return a brief summary, photos of Wright, images of his famous projects and perhaps, most interestingly, related “things.” People who search for Wright are also looking for other notable architects. It’s a feature that may remind users of Amazon’s penchant for delivering “people who liked this book also bought or searched for this one” results.

And from the Google blog post on the Knowledge Graph, comes this little nugget:

We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want. And we can now sometimes help answer your next question before you’ve asked it, because the facts we show are informed by what other people have searched for. For example, the information we show for Tom Cruise answers 37 percent of next queries that people ask about him.

This is fascinating. And in some ways quite monumental for museums. How on earth can museums compete in such an environment? Why would anyone come to a museum (or at least, an online collection) for information when they can go to Google and get information that is likely to be tailored to their needs? And at the same time, how can we find information that runs against this “official” line? Is this simply grand narratives on a much grander scale, only controlled by a commercial entity? Google argues that this will lead to serendipitous discovery  – but surely the potential for truly serendipitous discovery is actually reduced, not improved?

During Koven’s Ignite Smithsonian talk from 2011, he said

however you may feel about content farms like eHow, wikiHow, whatever, what they do do very well is they find questions that people are actually looking for, and answer them directly and completely.  And so what we need to do is, by combining content from lots of sources, we can actually really focus on what people want, and worry just exclusively about making that content that’s unique to us.

But what on earth is unique to us? We aren’t the only institutions for whom history is our domain. Nor are we the only ones that tell stories. We have objects, yes, but objects maybe don’t mean all that much online, when all that they can present is a simulacrum of the physical. So what can we offer that Google cannot? Authority? I think that most people would think that Google was fairly authoritative for the majority of information that they are looking for (particularly if it does point to sites like museums and libraries).

So should museums simply give up trying to find better models for presenting their own collections, and work with Google? Or can we instead prove to be an effective counter-point to the global meta-narrative that Google is writing for us using algorithms? Does this move by Google have the potential to essentially change what a museum is or does online in the Internet age?

This is obviously a very quickly bashed out post, filled with first reactions rather than deep contemplation. But I would love to hear what you think about this more too. Lots to discuss on this issue.

What do you think? What could the implications of Knowledge Graph be for museums?