Visiting Scholar Speaker Series

Institut für Technik- und Wissenschaftsforschung / Department of Science, Technology & Society Studies

Friday, 1 December 2017, 3 – 5 pm; Sterneckstrasse 15, S.2.16


Invisible Search

Dr. Jutta Haider (Information Studies, Dep. of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden)


With digital tools now permeating most aspects of society, the use of search engines has become integral to everyday life on many levels. Searching for recipes or the bus timetable, for medical advice, for old neighbourhood photos or the weather report, searching for work-related documents, legal guidance or for the whereabouts of former colleagues, all this is done instantaneously on the same interface and using the same devices, thus inscribing itself into various parts of life. Search permeates myriads of social practices and everyday life on all levels, but it often remains invisible. It appears simple and is done effortlessly. Yet, this effortless simplicity with which online search intersects with everyday life in so many different situations hides an astounding complexity and various strands of research traditions that have since a long time been dealing with different aspects of search and search engines. In fact, an entire set of considerations comes to the fore relating to issues such as the ways in which social practices are integrated with technology, with understandings of what information might be and do in a certain situation, how to make sense of it in a specific context in relation to search algorithms or in which ways to trust or question it. Furthermore, being searchable is today not only often seen as a feature of information, information is also molded to fit the algorithmic shape provided by the tools used for searching, which more often than not is a web search engine.


The use of search engines is curiously dispersed and centralised at the same time. It is dispersed across a vast array of social practices in which it has acquired close to naturalised positions, while it is commercially and technically centralised and controlled by a handful very dominant companies, especially one extremely powerful global player, Google. In the course of this, we can call it, double movement search engines increasingly develop into “suggest engines”, thus merging even further into the background made-up of everyday routines. Ultimately this search-ification of society and the concurrent mundane-ification of search relates to the way in which an increasingly invisible information infrastructure is entangled across culture and its practices and also to which means we have at our disposal for understanding and making sense of these entanglements. In this presentation I draw on empirical work carried out in Sweden to reflect on some of the ways in which search is complicit in shaping the informational texture of issues and of how online search is entangled across practices and situations. I will primarily refer to work carried out in the project Knowledge in a digital world: Trust, Credibility & Relevance on the Web”, funded by the Swedish Research Council, and present some key components of a forthcoming book.