Focusing on the Background

This interesting article about the role of language in the search results we get from online engines like Google caught my attention today as I was meandering through my RSS feeds (something I shouldn’t have been doing, especially on the first day of the semester when I have so many other things that I should probably be taking care of).

Hale points out that the language we use to search for something matters, because the way many images/documents/pages are indexed are specific both to the search engine and to the actual language used to conduct the search (i.e. English, Chinese, German) — he gives the Tianaman Square Google Image search example, which is quite striking (check out the piece to see his example). I like stumbling across pieces like these because they serve as reminders of just how much of our online/digital experiences get filtered through the creations, imaginations, and even manipulations of others. It’s something that’s surprisingly easy to forget.

For example, here I sit, writing this post in my WordPress blog, and though I can change some of the settings (I know a little html — *polishes nails on shirt*), I am still restrained by the “theme” I chose, its parameters, and the options granted me by the wonderful people at WordPress, wherever they might sit. I have chosen this platform for my blog from among many other platforms, but by choosing it, I give up some of the freedom I might otherwise have by html-ing the whole darn thing (which I have done and have decided is not worth my time). I save time, but with that saved time comes a price; I filter all that I say through the options granted me by my this space and my moderate knowledge of how to manipulate it.

This “filtering” is perhaps even more evident to me in my teaching, when I make choices about which platforms to use with students. Michigan just “went Google” (and trust me, it was indeed a “going”… some people feel like we “went” a bit too far). Google docs is a major part of my teaching. GoogleSites could be, but I don’t use it often because of accessibility limitations (apparently it’s not intuitively laid out for people with visual impairments who use screen readers. This is something I learned recently). WordPress is a major part of my teaching. All free services, which is great for teachers — but with freedom comes a price, and I always wonder about the filters out there that influence our web experience — background information that we don’t even think about… like language.

So this post is a call for teachers and researchers out there to keep in mind, as we head into this new year, that there’s no such thing as “free,” that somewhere someone is making decisions that will influence what kind of webspaces your students can create for themselves, what images will pop up when you do a Google search, or what web-based capital gets extended to which people. I’m not suggesting anyone throw up their hands and quit using these “free” resources. Nor am I arguing that we should all learn html and code our own websites (because let’s face it, we’re not gonna). I think it’s important that we ask ourselves, as we make decisions about technology, why we’re making that decision; who we become beholden to as a result; what limitations we place on ourselves; and what motives, interests, or ideologies might lie in the background.