Pay No Attention to the Algorithm Behind the Curtain!
In this lecture, Patrick Wohlmut (Teaching and Research Librarian and Assistant Professor at Linfield College) discusses ways that individuals can be savvier and more conscious users of search technologies. Systems that help us find and obtain information – whether they are search engines like Google, or databases provided by a library – often appear to us to be neutral entities. The assumption is that you put information into a little box, and you get relevant information back. The process appears at first glance to be mechanical, transparent, and devoid of bias. We think that the system is simply showing us what's there, and if it doesn't show us something, then either it's not relevant or it doesn't exist. The problem with this view is that search systems are not passive. They are made of mathematical procedures – algorithms – that make all sorts of choices, in the blink of an eye, about what's relevant and what's not, based on how those algorithms interact with the language you use to frame your search. Furthermore, these systems are programmed by human beings, and human beings have opinions and viewpoints about what constitutes relevance that leave an imprint on the system. Given this, can search systems like Google really be considered neutral? What about scholarly databases? Or online library catalogs? And what happens to us when we start to treat Google not as a tool, but as a teacher? Or even as an authoritative research partner?