Writing on photography

Engines of Doubt: Digital Archives

At some moment in history our collective knowledge as a species must have exceeded what a single person could remember. This led to the need for technologies which would allow us to record things; drawings, hieroglyphics, writing. As this information accumulated our records themselves must have grown beyond human understanding, to the point that one could never read all that was known in the span of a human life, let alone remember it.

From here our knowledge continued to expand into vast archives and libraries housing millions of texts. Their subject matter as wide ranging as the experiences they reflected. These too grew to the point of complexity where even the structure of their organisation, the systems by which their content were categorised, grew in complexity went beyond the possibility of being fully known even by the most dedicated archivist.

Now the archive as physical thing is disappearing, their records and artefacts are gradually being digitised and absorbed into a global network of computers, a virtual warehouse of unimaginable proportions, storing and sharing information on everything from ancient Greek philosophy to motor bike maintenance guides, lists of dictators victims to hard-core pornography. The human archivists are gone too, and the gatekeepers to this knowledge are now the search engines.

These engines of knowledge spend countless man hours, devotedly filtering the growing vastness of the internet. It is an unknown and unknowable vastness, estimates of its size vary from ten billion to as many as three trillion pages. Filtering it, valuing it, indexing it, ordering it, for later recall on demand in fractions of a second, these engines ‘know’ the internet as much as it could ever be possible for it to be known. Suitably enough the first web search engine was named ‘Archie’, an anthropomorphised shortening of ‘archive’.

In an atheistic age perhaps these machines are functionally the closest we know to gods. All being and all knowing, never resting, operating largely independent of us. We rely on these engines to find what we need in this growth of knowledge called the internet, a growth of knowledge which paradoxically often contributes to an increase in doubt. A growth which like an enlightened cyst is metastasising rapidly into ever more areas of our lives, making us in turn ever more dependent on the god-engines, information shamans who alone know how to traverse this virtual world in search of answers.

So what then when these archivist-idols fail, when by accident or design they are unable to return information reliably, what then? It has been estimated that only a fraction of the internet has been indexed by search engines, the pages returned are only what the engine knows, not all that is there. Even these god like machines are unable to comprehend all the knowledge we have generated, of things both sacred and profane.

They are also open to manipulation. Techniques like search engine optimisation uses an understanding of what these engines look for and how they ‘value’ sites to increase the likelihood of returning a certain result. By more sinister intent, a related technique, Google Bombing, exploits knowledge of the way search engines gather information. By knowing this it is possible to coax the engines into returning certain answers, one of the most notable was that for a time a search for ‘miserable failure’ returned information on George W. Bush. Funny as this might seem the technique has more insidious uses, for example redirecting internet searches for a hot topic like a war or a political scandal away from reliable sources of information and towards organs of propaganda.

These moments of doubt are not limited just to text. It is possible to reverse search from an existing image and have the engine find you ones it imagines are similar. Looking for a reproduction of a portrait by a grand master, I was offered everything imaginable. Photographs of celebrities, actors, sports people, porn stars, the UN secretary general, everything except what I was actually looking for.

The problem with these new archives is that when using them one is often not completely sure what one is looking for, relying instead on the engine itself to interpret what you provide and find the right answers for you. When that situation changes and you know quite definitely what you want to see it can be quite disturbing to find how far from the mark the results are.

We trust these idols implicitly, we use them dozens of times a day without even a thought. Can anyone remember their first time, their first search? Now the process has become so thoroughly mechanical, so without consideration or incident. But what cannot be disregarded is what information we are given and why, how these engines of doubt are shaping our view of a world more and more divorced from the physical and anchored instead in the virtual.

Photographs of a Google server farm from here.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography