Search and the Ontological Capacities of the Digital

From the Series: Digital Ontology

Photo by Gerd Altmann.

In this essay, I engage with the ontology of the digital by exploring the temporalities and forms of relatedness that it affords. I do so by focusing on a relatively recent digitalized practice: search. In computer science and information retrieval research, digital search arrangements have usually been defined as follows: a user interacts with a retrieval space through an interface such as a search engine or web browser. The retrieval space is comprised of information objects, which in the case of commercial web search services include unstructured or semistructured content such as text, multimedia objects, metadata, and hyperlinks. The interface enables the examination and navigation of results sets, and the selection, ordering, and display of search objects. Crucially, the design of these retrieval spaces provokes users to type in search queries or keywords—a string and concatenation of meaningful, but sometimes inaccurately typed-in words—into an interface.

By examining the relation that web-based search engines establish and sustain between search keywords and users, we are able to trace both the specificities and the ontological capacities of the digital. One way to start exploring how digital search engines configure the relatedness of search keywords and users or persons is through the so-called personalization of search. Since their inception, digital search engines have faced the problem of personalizing search results to match the level of a particular user’s interest or need. At the beginning, search results were depersonalized. Search engines offered results that were relevant at the aggregate level: the index reorganized itself to each particular search query and used the method of link analysis to construct a ranking made visible as a query list (Mayer 2009). Yet these rankings were deemed irrelevant to the specific needs and subjective interests of the contextually bounded and situated user who had initiated the search (Stalder and Mayer 2009). As a response to this problem, techniques and strategies were developed for personalizing search results. Initially, this proceeded through the compilation of a personal data profile. Each particular search expressed in the form of keywords became attributed to a singular, unique user interest or need and was situated in space and time (Stalder and Mayer 2009). Later, the personalization of search would be accomplished by the framing and active contextualization of particular search keywords through a data derivative (Amoore 2011). This method drew together background long-term preferences, search query history, browsing history, the semantic scope of the information being requested, and user actions not related to the search itself (Feuz, Fuller, and Stalder 2011).

In short, in the era of depersonalized search, keywords were diffusely related to individual users or persons. But in the era of personalized search results, keywords became configured not only as the expression of an individual search interest or need, but also as part of a past archive used as context for the results with which users are presented within the space of a present search. It could thus be argued that the digital personalization of search organizes a particular temporal relation between users and searches.

Autosuggest options for a personalized Google query. Photo by Ana Gross.

Another ontological specificity of the digital, which also becomes traceable in the workings of personalized search, is the capacity to conflate and synchronize incorporating and inscription practices (Hayles 1993). An incorporating practice such as a goodbye wave cannot be separated from its embodied medium: the hand. It exists only when it is instantiated by a particular hand making a particular kind of gesture. When such embodied gestures are abstracted by translating them into a different medium, such as a picture, the gesture is no longer an incorporated practice. Rather, it has been transformed into an inscription that functions as if it were independent of any particular instantiation. One could argue that the practice of searching (for things, places, persons, and information) also constitutes an incorporating practice, since it can become encoded and naturalized as a habitual mode deployed for navigating everyday life. The difference, however, between pictures and search engines as technical modes of abstracting incorporating practices is that the latter articulate feedback between the practice (of search) and its abstractions (search keywords) when personalization enables past searches to inform present searches.

In this way, inscriptions—such as a particular typed-in search query at a particular time—are not cut entirely free from the incorporated practice of search that they are made to be an expression of, but instead routinely feed back into it. Personalized searching shows us that the digital enables inscriptions to become less diachronic with respect to past practices and instead to become intermittently synchronized. The liveliness and animation of the relation between inscriptions and practices, but also objects and phenomena in the world, is one of the many outcomes brought about by the ontological capacities afforded by the digital. The digital has enabled the introduction of feedback loops—arguably, a particular ontological relation—and the extension of their relevance, significance, and deployment in multiple, recursive, and sometimes automatic information systems used in a wide range of everyday practices, including search (Lury, Parisi, and Terranova 2012; Thrift 2007).


Amoore, Louise 2011. “Data Derivatives: On the Emergence of Security Risk Calculus for Our Times.” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 6: 24–43.

Feuz, Martin, Matthew Fuller, and Felix Stalder. 2011. “Personal Web Searching in the Age of Semantic Capitalism: Diagnosing the Mechanisms of Personalization.” First Monday 16, no. 7.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 1993. “The Materiality of Informatics.” Configurations 1, no. 1: 147–70.

Lury, Celia, Luciana Parisi, and Tiziana Terranova. 2012. “Introduction: The Becoming Topological of Culture.” Theory, Culture & Society 29, nos. 4–5: 3–35.

Mayer, Katja. 2009. “On the Sociometry of Search Engines: A Historical Review of Methods.” In Deep Search: The Politics of Search beyond Google, edited by Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder, 54–72. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction.

Stalder, Felix, and Christine Mayer. 2009. “The Second Index: Search Engines, Personalization and Surveillance.” In Deep Search: The Politics of Search beyond Google, edited by Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder, 98–115. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction.

Thrift, Nigel. 2004. “Movement-Space: The Changing Domain of Thinking Resulting from the Development of New Kinds of Spatial Awareness.” Economy and Society 33, no. 4: 582–604.