The Myth of Automated Meaning


  • James Caufield



Most discussions of search engines focus on technology or user experience. By contrast, this paper asks about those who produce the recommendations that search engines gather. How are these people and institutions affected when search engines incorporate their work into search results, but no credit is given? The paper argues that the lack of attribution encourages the myth of automated meaning, the false belief that computers and algorithms have created rather than simply gathered these recommendations. It further argues that by concealing the role of these producers, search engines undermine public support for the individuals and institutions that create trustworthy recommendations, especially libraries. Because search engines borrow so extensively from public institutions and the public at large, their ethical obligations are far greater than previously recognized. The paper concludes with some comparisons between the ethical practices of libraries and those of search engines. Acknowledgements: An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Symposium Ethics of Electronic Information in the 21st Century, 2005. I would like to thank Mardi Mahaffy for commenting on the paper.




How to Cite

Caufield, James. 2006. “The Myth of Automated Meaning”. The International Review of Information Ethics 5 (September). Edmonton, Canada:48-62.