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What might a post-Google web search engine actually look like?

The above video essay is a new commission by Nesta as part of the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative — an ambitious new European Commission programme focused on creating a more inclusive, human-centric and resilient internet by 2025.

Transcript:

The web search engine is arguably one of the most iconic and defining technologies of the modern internet. Search engines allow us to access the sum of the world’s information and knowledge that is increasingly stored and distributed on the internet.

And yet today a single centralised access point, Google, monopolises search with a staggering 90 per cent share of the global web search market. Google is now so ubiquitous with web search that it has become a verb, we “Google things” rather than “questioning things”.

This speculative demo is a proposition simply asking: what if there was something else? What would the internet look like if accessed through an alternative means to organise the world’s information? What might a post-Google internet look like?

else is an alternative Information Retrieval system asking this very question through speculative and illustrative examples. So let us start with a single web search example.

According to Google’s “Year in Search Report” the most searched question in the UK and USA in 2018 was “What is bitcoin?”. Asking questions in alternative, and entirely new ways, might begin to fundamentally challenge the very structure of how we access the internet. Google was far from the first to attempt to organise the world’s information in order to make it accessible and useful.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates went about the same task in circa 400 BC. Socrates’ equivalent to an algorithm was dialogue, a way of questioning our questions that became known as the Socratic Method. Socrates encouraged us to consider diverse perspectives in order to surface the nuances of clarity, assumptions, evidence, alternatives, and implications. So let us apply the ancient Socratic Method to the very modern question of what is bitcoin?

Seeking clarity might surface the most succinct interpretations of a query. Such as Wikipedia definitions of the terms Bitcoin, Cryptocurrency, Blockchain, or Decentralisation.

Challenging our assumptions about bitcoin might present a series of further questions to refine our primary question. As such we might reconsider the validity of bitcoin as a currency, its suitability as an investment opportunity, or its legitimacy as a force for social good. In this way we might be encouraged to re-examine our beliefs, and the presuppositions that such beliefs are built upon.

Adopting an evidence-based perspective might support scientific methods over and above opinions and views that are often subject to bias. These searches would favour results from peer-reviewed research, such as evidence about bitcoin carbon emissions reported in the scientific journal Nature.

Alternative viewpoints might be taken from the edges of current paradigms of knowledge. In this case from what we currently know as the rarely visited “deep web”. From here we might consider the original “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” that advocates encrypted exchanges ensuring anonymity, freedom of speech and trade. Consequently we might begin to evaluate bitcoin’s embodied relationship to anarchism as an anti-authoritarian political theory.

Finally, fully understanding the implications of any single question is paramount to our holistic understanding of the world. For example the implications of bitcoin are highly complex and encompass multiple environmental, political, legal, social, and cultural interdependencies.

Through these speculative examples we might begin to see radically different access modes into the internet. And by virtue alternative lenses into knowledge, into diverse perspectives, and into making sense of the complex world we inhabit.

Through imagining such alternatives we might be able to find new kinds of answers, and more importantly find new ways of asking questions. For as the artist, writer, and technologist James Bridle summarised in 2018:

‘Computers are not here to give us all the answers, but to allow us to put new questions, in new ways, to the universe.’

— James Bridle, The New Dark Age

Concept / Design: Ted Hunt

Commissioned by: Nesta -NGI Engineroom

In partnership with: European Commission

Licensing: Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

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