From BxAL To PR(u)

Google’s web search engine is an index of pages on the World Wide Web constructed and constantly reconstructed by algorithms running on thousands of computers in parallel. This “PageRank'” algorithm is a mathematical formalisation of the informal heuristic that academics use to judge the influence of a published paper. The more people cite the paper, or the more people link to the document, the higher its score.

This is an automated solution to an organisational or methodological problem. The users of the Web are faced with a highly interlinked but highly diverse space of information to search in order to achieve their various ends. There are alternatives to this. Yahoo and Dmoz are human-managed directories rather than machine-generated indexes. Wikia is a human-managed search engine, although it is currently in its infancy.

In Art & Language’s Index projects I see a precedent for both the practice and critique of web search. The Indexes took Art & Language’s written work, highly interlinked but highly diverse, and produced an index for it based on various concepts in such a way that an imagined audience could navigate this sprawling and opaque practice.

The later Indexes were computer generated (randomly according to one report) or crowdsourced by Art & Language New York, the earlier ones were typed up by the British group. Their production was a strong application of the technology of business (filing cabinets, typewriters, and then computers) to a social and procedural problem: how to map and represent the conversational artistic practice of Art & Language in a form meaningful to the group and to an imagined audience.

To use the Indexes you check a table on the wall or a hand-out and then look up the relevant document in one of the filing cabinets. The bundle of notes in a plastic envelope (or on microfilm) that results may be of more general interest, and similar or different documents can be found by consulting the table further. This looks like a low-tech precursor to Googling for information.

The Indexes have important differences from search engines in the way they operate. Documents in the Indexes are differentiated and classified, and are unranked. Search engines use only a single information-destroying ranking measure, not positive and negative relations or grouping concepts. Directories use grouping concepts but not relations.

What is obscured in considering the Indexes as prehistoric search engines is their social construction and the specific purposes they served. Google’s users mostly regard it as neutral, but it is neutral only with regard to the demands of global capital. The Indexes were both the product of disagreement within Art & Language and of Art & Language’s ideologically radical position relative to the mainstream contemporary art of the time. It is both a product and a producer of discord and hard interpretative work both inside thr group that produced it and between that group and society.

The Indexes provide a historical source of concepts that can be applied to search engine production and critique, both in their social and technical production. The most important question the Indexes raise for search engines is what social forms have produced them and what social forms they produce. These questions are all the more important given search engines professed neutrality.

(There is an image of Index 001 near the bottom of the page here.)

Posted in Aesthetics