Practical Insights in The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media

August 27, 2018 | Jameson Zimmer

The Marvelous Clouds is billed as a philosophical work in the niche academic discipline of “media studies.” I’m not an academic, and the concepts of media studies are mostly above my head.

However, I found this book engaging because it had a fresh and helpful perspective on my field of work — digital content and search — that I would never get from results-obsessed and ethics-free industry publications.

This post will be less a review of the book and more a catalog of the parts I found relevant for understanding the practical side of search and digital media.

Elemental Media and Search Engine Optimization

Peter’s description of the mechanisms underpinning Google’s search algorithm brings up a parallel between another problematic system of determining value: the academic publishing industry.

The reading logic of PageRank, which mimics the academic prestige system, is another way in which Google ties to campus culture. “Publish or perish” is the famous rule for university professors, but the calculus is actually more subtle. Professors love to read; and even more, they love to write. Even more than writing, they love to publish. But even more than publishing, they love to be read. Better than being read is being cited. Even better than being cited, however, is being cited by someone important. And how do you know who is important? By citations, of course: an important scholar gets cited a lot. Scholars who are cited by other scholars a lot confer greater authority when they cite another scholar: they channel the power of their inlinks.

I hadn’t considered this parallel before. It’s a helpful tool for thinking about issues with search. How do you account for valuable content that isn’t heavily linked? How do you avoid rewarding sites/scholars who game the system, especially when the system is largely automated and rewards volume of engagement over accuracy?

Another gem that says volumes about the search industry:

The art of searching, like that of fire, consists largely in elimination.

Peters is quick to compare digital archives to endless graveyards, less prone to considering them as living media.

Of course, the vast majority of content on the Internet is not valuable to anybody. There are reams of evidence showing how pages that fall below the top ten results are essentially archived — rarely read, and then only by niche researchers. To what degree is the volume of engaged content related to the value of the content, and to what degree is it defined by the “top ten” parameters of the Google search design?

Google has been testing infinite scroll results on mobile as of 2018, which could heavily impact the distribution of traffic in the top of the search results iceberg.

In practice, Google tends to prefer paginated content in their own UX as well as sites being ranked, since infinite scrolls are complex to catalog compared to neat, orderly books.

Ironically, Chrome manages the loading of infinitely scrolled content using a technique called “tombstones”.

Culture shaping media, media shaping culture

Peters presents a Borgesian “map and territory” dilemma throughout the book, made particularly clear in the sections on digital media and search:

[T]he aim [of PageRank] is not to know every square inch of soil but to figure out topography from the water flows. More simply, the content of documents can be inferred from their location in networks.

Engaging with digital media, people and algorithms alike are faced with the challenge of prioritizing information in a “library of Babel” of our own making.

How long is the coast of England? The answer to this last question famously depends on the length of the measuring stick: the shorter the stick, the more it can account for small squiggles of shape, and thus longer the measured length.

The more accurate the map, the more the map “becomes” the territory. But really, the representation and abstraction of the real thing is all that’s available to our comprehension — as well as the comprehension of human-designed algorithms.

Visions of the Internet

At one point in the book, Peters describes the three “visions” of digital media proposed by the major FANG companies:

[Google] sees the Internet as an open field to be surveyed rather than as either a social hive or a walled garden (the rival visions of Facebook and Apple).

Internet as environment

The point of The Marvelous Clouds, to the degree that points are possible in academic books of philosophy, is that media is an environment. Like an environment, it is as much shaped as a shaper of those that inhabit it.

Peters suggests that the Internet isn’t really that special — it’s just an extension of existing modes of understanding the world. It suffers from the same issues as traditional media and environments. It is only revolutionary in that it allows for bigger graveyards and magnified bias.

By extension, search and our systems for cataloging a system are unlikely to rise above existing limitations to understanding and organization.