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2022-07-01

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

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In Lieu of Search Engines (2022-04-04)

Photograph of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes from Marcia Jessen's fan website, basilrathbone.net. Photograph of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes from Marcia Jessen's fan website, basilrathbone.net.
Photograph of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes from Marcia Jessen's fan website, basilrathbone.net.

The debate about giant propaganda companies has been rumbling messily despite the best public relations efforts of those companies, and this drew my mind back to the challenge of search engines. I have explored some alternate approaches, from search engines with different priors that are still based on the same basic model of indexing the web and then searching the index, with either centralized or centralized servers. At one time or another I have touched on the older category approaches of the very earliest iterations of yahoo!, altavista, and the blip known as excite. The sort of nonsense that aol and similar used to peddle is in -2.0 form as "social media" and that isn't merely a bad approach but a seriously pathological one to finding relevant materials online. Meanwhile, like many people, I have found that message boards focussed on my areas of interest are better for finding specific and well curated content, proposed by people whose leanings I get to know over time. Then there are specific archives that are of great use, generally run by non-profits that have their own internal search engine services independent of google or similar. From the quality of the results, I think it is fair to say that since these archives are structured and they apply focussed effort on developing and curating a synonym thesaurus, those internal search engines are well tuned and doing solid to excellent jobs. But then I found myself pondering a harder question. Supposing that the big internet search engines weren't there for whatever reason, or were going to stop working for whatever reason. Then what would be the optons available?

I suspect that in that event, the first thing many people would do is depend upon one another to acquire links to needed websites. For example, a call out on one of those message boards I mentioned, and many people on social media would likely use that if it was not taken down by whatever mysterious thing I am pretending removed the current web-wide search engine system. That might even spur a renaissance of link swaps and old time web rings. Still, those sound like short term solutions, and I suspect quite a few people would be dissatisfied with them after a few weeks at best. No doubt there would also be teams of coders reimplementing search engines using different servers, perhaps switching wholly to a decentralized mode to avoid the issues that likely would have fed the mysterious issue. That is definitely a way to go about it. But suppose that was still going to take a considerable while, including rebuilding indexes and figuring out if and how this was going to be rebuilt into something international.

In that case it seems to me that the thing to do would be to take full advantage of something that most websites already have, or could easily be generated if they are not too poorly designed from an website architecture perspective. That thing is the site map, the last port of call when a website's navigation system is hopelessly confusing or broken for whatever reason. Also an important alternative when using a site in other than your first language. So, supposing that there are all these site maps at the ready the first step is to contribute them to what in effect become a new, decentralized partial index of the web, based on a catalogue of those site maps. Maybe at first that means we end up with a rough catalogue of say, university or library site maps or what have you. The great thing about well composed and edited site maps is that they are full of appropriate and useful key words. This would be a serious head start on reindexing. It would not allow the kind of serendipitous search once so readily available at least to begin with, but it would be a reasonable start. It would still be necessary to index the resulting collections of course, at least from this angle I can't see any way to get away from that. Nobody has managed to find a means to avoid indexing books in a library or bookstore either, and not for lack of trying.

Overall then, this sounds awkward but quite doable, and it probably would take surprisingly little time relatively speaking. Not many websites curate related links or links of interest pages any more, so those are not available to contribute to building additional interconnections in the way they may have done in the early days of the web. Truth be told though, I don't know that they actually did or that anyone tried to analyse whether they could actually do that job. My perusal of the website naked capitalism showed me that google has taken specifically to downgrading the ranking of pages of links even if those links can be shown to be human curated and linked together in a non-random fashion. That may not be a new position as such, since attempts to game search engines via something like link gardening was an obvious tactic thirty years ago. For my part, I have kept a page of useful links apart from the bookmark collections web browsers can be used to make for some time, although my unscientific sample of colleagues and friends suggests that few people do this today. (I took it up due to the nuisance that trying to export and reimport bookmarks is, and have found it useful enough to keep doing.) Otherwise link swapping using a selection from such pages would be a practice worth instating or reinstating under conditions in which search engines are deemed less dependable. In any case, what this all has in common is a dependence on widespread participation by people who participate in adding material to the web and using the web as a source of information and entertainment. Not so long ago suggesting crowdsourcing could work in this context would have drawn derision rather than serious consideration, but the real life evidence suggests it is possible.

 

Indigenous Nations and Census Taking

Somehow, you can always sort the enumerators from the people who valiantly sell chocolates and magazines to finance school trips or collect commitments to provide empties for bottle drives. Admittedly, it could be the gigantic clipboard and the slightly harried look: being a census enumerator isn't necessarily a pleasant job. Census-taking isn't as humdrum and uncontroversial as you might expect, either. Well, maybe we all used to think it was humdrum and uncontroversial, and then an appalling prime minister came along and proceeded to attack every form of science-based knowledge generation in various government departments. Individual reasons to refuse to participate in a census range from religious, such as a belief in express prohibitions by a deity to political, such as a belief that census-taking is too easily twisted into a tool of oppression. Then there are those who don't get to make a decision to participate or not, because the census-takers never reach them due to difficulties reaching their communities or because they are homeless. Apart from these types of reasons, Indigenous people often have additional experiences that may make them reluctant to participate in a census.

Picture of a few numbers. Picture of a few numbers.
Picture of a few numbers, grabbed from the statscan site, may 2018.

The experiences of First Nations and Inuit around censuses are probably best known. For many years, an accurate census meant that when First Nation or Inuit parents' children reached the age of six years or so, an Indian agent would arrive to round them up and take them away to residential school. If the Indian agent knew about your children, and you tried to prevent them from being taken away, you could be jailed and fined while your children were taken anyway. Usually screaming in terror while you the parent were handcuffed and dragged away yourself. Many of those children never made it home, others were away from six to eight years. For the Inuit, census-taking is also tied to the experience of being arbitrarily renamed by federal officials, a topic covered in Tagging the Inuit. Métis have had a bit of a different experience again. Until the early 1900s, the Canadian government counted Métis and named them on the census forms by current federal terminology of the time (i.e. half-breed, country-born, etc.). Then the federal government deleted those terms from the census form until 1996, and complained vociferously at Métis during the court case concerning Métis land claims in manitoba because it had no information on Métis population numbers for the period it wasn't counting. In western Canada a significant portion of the Métis population was officially homeless, "squatting" on road allowances and the edges of the reserves. Then the federal government tried to pretend that any person of "mixed blood" was Métis, and complained that that made for arbitrarily huge numbers of people.

This created a situation in which most First Nations and Inuit in what is currently called canada were reasonably very leery of the census, while many Métis were frustrated with being unrepresented on it. Adding even more controversy is the fact that how many Indigenous people are counted and the statistics around their personal circumstances feed directly into decisions about funding from the federal and provincial governments, which is typically on a per capita basis. For many years "status indians," those registered with the "department of indian and northern affairs" in one of its incarnations according to the requirements of the so-called indian act were effectively being continuously enumerated, with government officials actively predicting their numbers would fall to nothing in just another decade or two. In fact, "status indians" are still continuously enumerated now. You can check out the numbers on the website where the federal government presents "First Nations Profiles." The numbers are updated every month – it's a bit creepy and obsessive, really.

The canadian royal commission on aboriginal peoples recommended that a separate "Aboriginal Peoples Survey" be run after the usual pentannual census. It was first run in 1991, and collected cultural as well as socio-economic information. Unfortunately, the survey died almost immediately after it was first run due to budget cuts. It left an impression on the main census though, in the form of the questions about "Aboriginal heritage" now customarily included on it. Ironically, the new questions still don't seem to make life any easier if you're trying to figure out how many Indigenous people there are in Canda, where they live and what services they may need: the questions change each time the census is held. The 2006 censustakers found that at long last the Indigenous population in Canada had passed a million people, but the truth is the census vastly underestimates the Indigenous population. And frankly, Indigenous people are more than happy to help themselves, if only the various settler governments would get the hell out of the way and let them do it.

Having said all that, statistics canada (statscan) has released some interesting numbers and analysis from those censuses. Starting from the caveat that the census still undercounts, and the efforts to completely confuse everybody about who Métis are, among the interesting things statscan has learned about Indigenous people in Canada from the census are:

  • up to 50% of all Indigenous people in canada live in urban areas, with a shift from net out-migration from reserves and settlements to in-migration
  • the highest numbers of people claiming both Indigenous ancestry and Indigenous identity were among the Métis and Inuit
  • the Indigenous population is growing the fastest in canada, with official numbers already expected to exceed 5% of the total population within the next one or two decades, likely sooner
  • more Indigenous women than men pursue post-secondary studies (meaning university, college, or technical school)
  • roughly half of the Indigenous population is less than 24 years old, with generally better health than their parents
  • the three most spoken Indigenous languages in Canada are Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibwe respectively

Now more and more Indigenous communities are taking control over administration and provision of services as part of re-establishing self-governance. As already noted, census numbers can be used to guide budget and programme decisions. Accordingly, Indigenous governments have been attempting to access the data statscan and other departments have already collected. What they have discovered is that it is no easy task for anyone to access the data. Maybe a little easier than getting your own data out of facebook if you are on it, though. The data must be specially requested, with all the paperwork and fees that implies. Worse yet, when they did get to see the data, they found it to be less accurate than they had hoped. So Indigenous organizations and communities have gone back to the drawing board to consider whether a census is even the right way to go in the first place to gain the knowledge they need. In the event that they do opt for a census or survey, new ways of gathering information that conform to the values and protocols of the different Nations are being developed. Even more importantly, organizations like the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) have pioneered a clear statement about who owns and controls any information gathered: the people the data comes from. So far, when surveys are run using the principles NAHO has collated with the help of its member Indigenous communities, they have higher participation and generally better outcomes.

Could it be that the problem with the usual census is a certain lack of democracy?

Copyright © C. Osborne 2022
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2022 20:48:21