Soctech seminar, Spring 2006

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Society and technology seminar: SLN 2932 CSE 590 T, Tue 12:30-1:20, CSE 403
(Law students should register for CSE 590 X - sln 2936, everything else is identical)

Spring 2006: The Social Ramifications of Search Technologies

As the cliché goes, in today’s “information society” there is no shortage of information, but rather an inability to process information in meaningful ways. The primary contemporary response to this information inundation has been the Search. As a consequence, the search engine has become one of the most important transformative social institutions of our time.

Because the heart of search is a mechanical ordering of results by relevance to a query, search algorithms are a new way of judging quality. This extends perhaps most importantly to the ranking of the quality of cultural content, something which in the past has been a human task. What does this mean for the distribution of power in society? How might the search algorithms themselves open up new avenues of political participation and expression? How might they work toward social exclusion?

Google in particular has been in the news recently for a variety of essential topics which demonstrate that search engines are raising many questions about the organization of content and access to it. And in the process, they are clashing with many different social institutions. With regard to privacy: should the US government have access to privately held information about the search habits of its citizens? With regard to political change and censorship: what role should search engines play in China in regards to dissidence and freedom of information? With regard to the current copyright institution: what content should be searchable?

In this seminar, we will explore a wide range of topics related to the search engine, drawing on sources as varied as current news stories, social science research, and algorithm design. Although we don't want to focus on Google, let's be honest, it will be difficult to not center on the company whose name, in our vernacular, has become synonomous with the verbs "to search" and "to discover".

Contact information: This course is being organized by Travis Kriplean (travis at cs) and David Orange (dborange at gmail).

If you would like to continue to receive news about ongoing soctech activities, then subscribe to the soctech@cs mailing list.

Topics (with tentative dates)

Suggestions are welcome about additional topics, improved organization, how to refine the existing topics, and relevant readings for each. Please send an email to travis (@cs) if you have such suggestions! Note that the readings will be pared down to be manageable for a seminar.

  • 28 March Introduction and The Search Engine as a Social Institution
Presented by Prof. Terry Brooks (i-School) - homepage
Presented by Mike Cafarella
Presented by Jonathan Claypool and David Orange
Presented by Prof. Dan Laster (Law) - homepage
Presented by Paul Pham
Presented by Keunwoo Lee; slides: PowerPoint, PDF handouts (color), PDF handouts (grayscale)
Presented by Joe Shaughnessy
Presented by Kaye Reiter and Colin Dixon
Presented by Allison Demeritt and Travis Kriplean

  • Other Possible Topics
  • How other communication technologies (e.g. radio, TV, printing press) have transformed society in the past and how these transformations may be similar or different to the ones we're seeing with search.
  • Money continues to play a large role in political communications. Is the role amplified by search, and how has it changed. Should we be concerned?
  • Is the internet becoming mature enough that it ought to be regulated? If we, for instance, give certain data priority, how should speech be treated?
  • Strengths and Weaknesses of Search
  • Other Resources

Mailing list


to sign up for the course mailing list. Contact Keunwoo if you have any difficulty signing up.

Administrative info

Course grading and credit-load policies: Subject to change, but variable credits are available to meet differing levels of participation:

  • Sign up for 1 credit if you plan to attend, do the readings, and participate in discussions.
  • Sign up for 2 credits if you wish to lead a discussion/present OR write a paper (four pages).
  • Sign up for 3 credits if you wish to lead a discussion/present AND write two short papers (four pages each) (Note: you must contact the course organizers in advance if you plan to take this course for 3 credits.)

Past seminars

Other Relevant Class Pages