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

March 27, 2010*: Too simple to teach.

At the beginning of this month Google rolled-out yet another new service. A new service from a premiere internet company should be a headline grabbing event, but it seems that Google releases new services with a frequency that detracts from their news value. New product roll-outs by Apple are media events - not only because of what's being presented to the public, but because they're orchestrated as such, and take place only once or twice a year. Google's new products receive substantial coverage in technology web sites, but many go almost unnoticed by the popular press. This may be because they're released so frequently that it's hard to give them star status. It's become rather ho-hum, and unless we're dealing with an earth-shattering item there doesn't seem to be much reason to pay much attention. This latest service of Google's however, is an attention getter, or perhaps more accurately, an attention keeper.

Our searches provide Google with vast quantities of data. They not only know what we're searching for, but when we're doing it, what results we click through to, and much more. From the data they've collected they've learned, among many other things, that many of us conduct the same search over and over again. But it's not only the same search - Google has realized that many of us are looking for, or perhaps more to the point, expecting, the same answer each time. In other words, instead of typing the address of a site, or even the site's name, into the URL bar, many people have learned that when they run a Google search on a particular term the site they want to click over to always shows up among the first few results. Basically this means that they don't have to remember anything beyond a name that they want to run a search on - Google will do the rest, and get them, if not immediately, then still very quickly, to where they want to be. If this method works, then why not use it, without devoting unnecessary effort to learning "better" methods of getting the same result?

Not too long ago, this sort of behavior was the sign of someone who didn't understand how to use a browser, of someone who simply bungled along, making minimal use of an extremely capable multi-purpose tool. It was somewhat like using the knife blade of a Swiss Army knife to screw in a screw. But even though this may really be little more than bungling, a good case can be made that with today's internet nobody really needs anything more. The technology behind the browser is no doubt becoming more and more complex, but who cares about behind the scenes when the user interface is becoming ... too simple to teach. For many tech savvy users Firefox has been the browser of choice because of the wide selection of add-ons and extensions it offers. Google's browser, Chrome, is now winning many of these users over because it has started offering extensions, something that Chrome was totally bereft of when first released. But even if Google has capitulated to the desire for extensions, it's my guess that Google isn't particularly interested in them, and would prefer the more simple and streamlined design of the original Chrome. After all, the people at Google have studied user behavior and they've probably come to the conclusion that rather than having people install extensions the best development path is to design a browser that simply offers what most people want. If people search from the address box, why not make that a default? Why add an additional search box if they can make the main address bar understand what site we want to run a search on? Why clutter the browser with buttons that people rarely use, and probably don't even know what to do with? In short, if we can have a multi-purpose address bar that pretty much takes care of everything, why not? Rather logically, Goolge now calls the address bar in Chrome the "omnibox".

Omnibox or no, there are still plenty of people who open Google's main page and run a search for something that they click over to on a more or less daily basis. It's toward these people that Google's new star system is directed. Quite simply, Google urges us to star a link that shows up in the results page of a search. When we do this, that particular link will always appear at the top of any future searches that we might run on the same term. The ReadWriteWeb blog garnered a disproportionate number of hits when a page from that blog appeared extremely high on the results page of a Google search for Facebook. When, almost a month later, the star system was released, ReadWriteWeb referred to it, with a wink to additional difficulties - such as spelling - that seem to burden many web surfers, as a solution to the Fafebook problem. But is this, as with similar tools, an answer in search of a problem? Wouldn't it be easier for internet users to learn a bit more about the services that their browser offers them, and then, instead of needing a tool such as this, simply know how to search?

There's nothing particularly new here. Many years ago this was already an identifiable trend. I don't remember precisely when I wrote it, but I remember questioning whether it was becoming so easy to find information that we'd no longer need librarians. Our educational systems assume that we have to teach our pupils to do research - that they have to be taught because they can't acquire research skills by themselves. But the truth is that until someone becomes a professional researcher in a well-defined field (and very few of us do) there's almost nothing to teach. In other words, schools don't train researchers - they help (or should help) pupils learn to function in an information rich society. The two are very different, and though sifting through piles of information in order to find something that might support a hypothesis, or shed light on an historic development, demands training and practice, in our everyday lives there's no reason why we shouldn't have tools that make finding the information we need as simple as possible. And yet, can there still be a point at which those tools make finding information too easy?

The answer to that question probably depends on which side of the information divide you happen to be. On the delivery side, librarians and "information literacy" experts seek to teach people the skills necessary to find and evaluate the information they come in contact with. They not only assume that there's a set of skills that can be taught, but also that those skills must be taught. In other words, they don't come naturally. Today's information landscape, they tell us, is too complex, too confusing, to be successfully traversed without proper training. If we're not taught the various stages of dealing with information we're liable to find ourselves drowning in too much irrelevant information, information that often seeks to obfuscate rather than clarify. One of the most common claims they'll make is that it's not enough to know how to type a word into the Google search box and to click on "Search". Many of those on the receiving end, however, aren't convinced. Their experience tells them that their everyday basic "type it in and click on 'search'" skills are almost always successful. What more is there to know? And Google, with lightning speed, page rank, corrections of spelling, and now stars that remind us how to get to pages that it should have been hard to forget, is consistently making search more and more effective, and easier and easier. The technology seems to be on the side of the casual searcher.

I see no reason why we should view technologies that enable us to access information as particularly different from technologies that make cooking as easy as putting something in a microwave and pushing "Start", or for that matter, a hammer designed to readily hammer a nail into a board. These are technologies that bring otherwise difficult or complex activities to someone who lacks the specific skills that may have once been required for them. A well built hammer can be effectively used by someone without great physical strength, yet few of us will claim that we've lost something because more people can hammer nails now than when it was a more strenght-intensive task. My microwave may not have made me into a gourmet cook, but it's made preparing and eating something tasty accessible to us all. We really shouldn't expect anything different with thought-intensive tasks - like finding information on the internet.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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