From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 29, 2005*: The tyranny of search.

After at least a few years during which it seemed that nobody needed, or at least wanted, an introductory course to the internet, I recently had the opportunity to return to teaching basic internet skills. In the past I'd enjoyed teaching courses of this sort, and since over the years I'd developed a rather extensive set of teaching materials, I figured that doing so again wouldn't demand too much effort. What I hadn't realized, though of course I should have, was the extent to which basic and simple Googling had upstaged almost all other "skills" which I might intend to teach.

In my previous courses I'd spend at least one whole lesson on bookmarking, and yet in this latest course I barely described the basics, doing little more than suggesting that bookmarking was most definitely a very important activity before moving on to other skills. I explained to my students that creating logical folders in which to categorize their bookmarks would make it easier for them to find something important in the future. In order to convince them of this I'd repeat phrases like "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". But of course with the quantity of sites my students accumulated (or lack thereof), even an ounce wasn't really worth the effort, and as I've noted previously about myself, bookmarking has to a large extent been superceded by online searching.

And if there wasn't much to explain in terms of bookmarking, there was even less to explain in the theoretical realm of comparing indexes to search engines. I was quite used to the fact that most people can't, or simply don't, distinguish between the two, but until I started reviewing my notes I hadn't realized that there's hardly an index worth its salt anymore. It was then that I began to truly realize that search had become our all-inclusive metaphor or access to information.

Was that unavoidable? Was seeking out information via a search engine predestined to be the only way to find something? Other possibilities certainly seem possible, if not probable. A couple of moments of brainstorming brings up a number of other possibilities - serendipity is always on my shortlist, and click by association isn't far behind. But what I found most strange, and even distressing, was that, with the mounting evidence that very little serious indexing seems to be taking place anymore, I found myself wishing that it was. Surely the vastness of cyberspace makes cataloging a Sisyphean task, meaning that if we really want to find something, we're going to have a much better chance of doing so if a machine helps us than if a person does. But I found myself missing that human touch*. Lest I sound overly sentimental, or critical of the coldness of technology, I hasten to emphasize that this concern arose from the feeling that when we find information via a search engine, we're also learning to conceptualize the information terrain as one of separate, unrelated slivers of data. Dare I say that it's something like strangers in the night?

Much of the information that people are searching for is being sought by many others. The Lycos 50 and Google Zeitgeist are (previously examined) examples of this simple, and sometimes distressing, truth. From that perspective, search creates, or at least gives expression to, a sense of community. After all, at the very least it's comforting to know that the information we seek is of interest to others as well. But it's in the very nature of a search engine that the information we find is particularized, atomized, out of context. Finding what I think I was looking for is certainly a satisfying, even pleasing, experience, but when we find it via a search engine we become enamored of the illusion that there's an easy, fast track to enlightenment, we assume that knowledge is little more than a collection of facts. We learn to view our world as a vast vending machine in front of which all we have to do is drop in a few coins and click on a couple of buttons. It's a surprisingly enticing illusion, and we're all too easily taken in by it.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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