Book Reviews

Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin. Invisible Search and Online Search Engines: The Ubiquity of Search in Everyday Life. London, New York: Routledge, 2019. 160p. Hardcover, $160.00 (ISBN: 978-1-138-32860-0).

Book cover for Invisible Search and Online Search Engines

What is the most recent thing you searched for online? A recipe to try? A favorite brand of clothes on sale? Contact information for your dentist’s office? A movie to watch? Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin, Professors of Information Studies at Lund University, use this prompt in focus group studies with people of different age groups and professions, as one illustration of their central thesis: search engines and online search are deeply embedded in our daily lives, often without our recognition. The responses represent the array of information that is sought online throughout a given day, indicative of the search-ification of everyday life, a key concept explored in this book. Platforms such as Google gather personal data on an immeasurable scale, learning every monetizable component of our lives to more efficiently sell us things while maintaining our attention and driving our continued use. Search engines know so much about our interests, desires, and day-to-day existence. Shouldn’t we know more about them?

Haider and Sundin consider how search engines are used and the ways online search occurs in everyday life with an emphasis on implications for media and information literacy. They draw upon sources that include a thorough literature review, focus groups, and their own analyses from years studying search and information practices. Online searching, which in the recent past was a highly specialized activity that could not be conducted without assistance from information professionals, is now done in the blink of an eye, seamlessly enmeshed with and a part of everyday life.

As an infrastructure that has become as essential to accessing information as it is monopolized by a small handful of corporations, search engines are increasingly invisible. As with any infrastructure, invisibility is a fundamental characteristic, and this extensive reliance on search engines is best demonstrated at the points where use breaks down. Information avoidance, from avoiding spoilers for a book’s ending to self-diagnosing symptoms that will lead to undue concern are examples, reminding us that access to information and the accompanying evaluation of it is not a cure-all. In fact, it is perfectly reasonable to avoid information in some cases, not least because these platforms often feel inescapable. Many people are experiencing a rapid context collapse between work and leisure, precipitated by neoliberal capitalism: Zoom is a current platform de rigeur used for work meetings, video calls with friends and family, and funerals, while Google attends to search needs for one’s job, personal life, and the increasingly indistinguishable line between the two. Yet, as the authors demonstrate, cracks exist in online search’s seemingly all-encompassing scope.

In another section of the book, the authors address bias in search engines. In their view, one which can be extrapolated to debates regarding “neutrality” in librarianship, the question is not whether bias exists, but which and whose values are represented, and how. As numerous scholars including Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin, and Joy Buolamwini have demonstrated, a neutral or objective technological tool is not possible. In fact, one reason search engines have been so successful at becoming a part of everyday life is exactly because they use bias and subjectivity to their advantage; they make constantly calculated decisions that seek to anticipate user needs, in accordance with the algorithms and code written by predominantly white and male tech employees in the service of accumulating capital. The distorted looking-glass of online search, reflecting society’s racist and patriarchal violence while simultaneously amplifying the loudest content as measured by clicks, views, and shares, poses an array of issues to consider, including for information literacy and the work of librarians.

A chapter on Search and Media and Information Literacy suggests infrastructural meaning-making—that is, the understanding of not only search results but how they came about—as an important area for those involved in information literacy efforts to grapple with. Users frequently trust the search engine’s processes and results, which aids in Google and other tech corporations’ desires to be fully woven into the fabric of everyday life and thus unquestioned as they continue their dominance. If information literacy is indeed essential to informed participation in society, as is frequently argued to be the case, how do we account for its being so contextual and tied to specific practices, while also often dependent upon the use of products that thrive on surveillance and content created largely by the same consumers?

Though information literacy is important, Haider and Sundin argue that it “can only partially address what is ultimately a crisis of trust in societal institutions of knowledge.” Appeals to information literacy as an answer to political polarization fail to account for the complexities of search and online information, from personal emotion and unwillingness to have one’s mind changed to the endless cycle of content based on one’s interests, whether unsubstantiated health information or far-right conspiracy theories. At the same time, librarians have a significant role to play in drawing attention to the perceived banality of search and to make apparent the workings of search engines and the commodification of information to library users. Doing so is an important step toward identifying the different shapes and forms of the search-ification of everyday life, making evident the impacts as well as the immense amount of trust we put into the results appearing on our screens.—Eamon C. Tewell, Columbia University

Copyright Eamon C. Tewell

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