Tag Archives: google

Keeping Up With the Times: Digitizing Holocaust Archives

By Amanda Walgrove

The rapid growth of technology, characteristic of the twenty-first century, has altered methods of human relation. Communicating through Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and email correspondence can make interpersonal connections seem trivial and dispassionate, but technological advancements can also produce meaningful intimacy. For example, we can video chat with estranged loved ones on the iPhone and reconnect with old friends through social media networks. The resources of cyberspace not only affect how we communicate, but also how we access, preserve, and retain information.

On the eve of International Holocaust Day, Yad Vashem announced that the world’s largest collection of Holocaust archives would be incorporated into Google’s overwhelmingly vast pool of virtual documents. Yad Vashem began digitizing their collection in the 1990’s but collaboration with Google is a vast leap for any remote assemblage of archives. What was once only accessible to those who visited the museum on a hilltop in Jerusalem is now available at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access. Now 130,000 photographs from the Holocaust archives can be sifted through with the aid of the world’s largest search engine.  Adding to the ease of the search process, the photographs have been scanned using optical character recognition. This means that during a search a photograph can be identified using any text in the picture, even if it is inscribed or written in another language. After locating an image on Google, the picture will then link to Yad Vashem’s website where users are encouraged to add their own text in the “Share Your Thoughts” section. To allow for immediate circulation, there are options to link the page to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz. Family history can be published and distributed in cyber space instantaneously, but this isn’t the first time Google has teamed up with Yad Vashem for these purposes. Due to their first cyber collaboration in 2009, Holocaust survivors were able to post testimonials on their own YouTube Channel. Still, this recent project marks only a stepping-stone in Google’s plans to annex Yad Vashem’s collection of millions of documents, survivor testimonials, diaries, letters and manuscripts.

For Google employee, Doron Avni, this technological merger meant a chance to search for an image of his grandfather with the click of a button. Avni is a policy manager at Google’s research and development center in Israel and once the project was finished, he immediately took advantage of the opportunity. A recent New York Times article featured his search as a prime example of how history can be unearthed from Yad Vashem’s recent circulation project. Avni’s grandfather, Yecheskel Fleischer, was taken in 1941 after he was released from a Nazi-run prison in Lithuania. After locating the photograph of his twenty-seven year old grandfather, Avni was then able to type in the details of his family’s story.

While historical and familial bridges may be gapped, there are always risk factors that accompany the widespread digital circulation of vital information. John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, said that there are concerns about “the central role a company is playing in the preservation of the world’s cultural information.” Although these photographs are not physically tangible in cyberspace, the opportunity for a broad audience to access these documents will have a profound educational impact as well as a sentimental one. “What my grandfather wanted was for the next generation to know about the Holocaust,” Mr. Avni said. “He would have been inspired by this, to know his message is now being communicated to so many people around the world.” The easiest way to access the next generation is through the twenty-first century’s social, educational, and political playground: the World Wide Web. Google’s gradual acquisition of Yad Vashem’s primary sources will enhance the way in which the memory of the Holocaust can be shared and passed on by those who survived and those who left documents behind.

Anti-Semitic Auto-complete?

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Journalist Stéphane Foucart posed an interesting question in a recent article in the French daily paper, Le Monde: what can Google tell us about our prejudices?  Intrigued by an earlier piece in Télérama, a weekly French magazine, that pointed out that the word ‘Jew’ often appeared in the Google search drop-down menu when someone typed in the name of almost any French top media executive or public leader, Foucart undertook his own unscientific study; producing the same outcome.

Based on this experiment, he took the results as a sign that the canard that Jews run the media or exert undue influence on French politics still hold sway among the general population. He furthermore argues that this is uniquely a French problem since the word ‘Jew’ did not  come up in the American or Spanish versions of the search engine, given similar inputs. Therefore, he concluded that Google had laid bare the French people’s latent anti-Semitism.

But what does this experiment really reveal?  Much of the answer to that question relies on the nature of Google searches.  Search results are derived from an algorithm designed to avoid a small group of people, intentionally manipulating the system to associate one word with another.  Common search words that pop-up in the search window cannot, according to a Google’s spokesperson, be created by a small group of people wishing to influence larger searches.  For example, a neo-Nazi group in Paris could not force the Google search engine to automatically link the word ‘Jew’ when someone types in ‘get out of France.’  Instead, Google judges the popularity of searches based on those carried out by each unique IP (Internet Protocol) address.  In order for a search term to grow in popularity, then, it must be typed in on a significant number of distinct computers each time for it to be recognized by Google.  Thus, the reason ‘Jew’ comes up so often in tandem with public figures is because a significant number of French people are entering those terms into the Google search engine on their own computers.

But Foucart ends his inquiry too soon.  If one actually clicks on the search term in question—let’s say ‘Nicolas Sarkozy’ + ‘Jew’—the picture become more complicated.  Contrary to what Foucart might expect, the top three links that come up are not, in fact, to extremist organizations.  Instead, they are links to Sarkozy’s Wikipedia page, a pro-Jewish personal blog praising the French president’s ascension to power, and an article in Haaretz.  Similarly, ‘Bill Clinton’ + ‘Jew’ (another automatic paring) brings up articles about his daughter’s marriage to Marc Mezvinksy. Because the most popular sites that appear in a Google search are those that appear at the top of the page, it seems that more French-speakers are more interested in reading Sarkozy’s Wikipedia page or about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding than anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. If ‘Jew’ is a common search term in the Google French engine, but the most popular pages are innocuous or even laudatory, as in the Sarkozy example, it is questionable that can we confidently conclude that the ‘Jew’ search, however discomforting it may be, is the most trustworthy indication of wide-spread anti-Jewish feeling in France.

Without detailed study, it is impossible to know why the French conduct the searches that they do or what they are hoping to find.  Perhaps they are obsessed by their leaders’ supposed Judaism.  Or perhaps they turn to the internet, just as Americans do, to confirm or deny rumors they might hear from the media or others about certain public figures.  Reports of increasing anti-Semitism in France, like anti-Semitism anywhere is always troubling, but sometimes the supporting facts are more ambiguous or are simply not borne out by deeper examination.  Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

The Google Seder

By Nadine Epstein

The e-mail invitation came at the last minute. Not that Google didn’t know Passover was on its way, but apparently it would have been un-Google-like to plan too far in advance. So the message arrived just a few days ahead of the special evening: “I would like to formally announce this year’s Google seder, affectionately known as Koogle@Google 2008.”

“Google? seder? Google seder?” you might ask. Not many companies (I can’t think of any others) have an official corporate seder. We’re not talking a Hanukkah or Christmas party but a full-fledged Exodus commemorative night at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, a few miles south of Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Continue reading