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

March 29, 2004*: All that technology for ... that?

Less than half a year ago I attempted to examine how internet searching has become a defining aspects of our lives. Ordinarily I rather consciously try to make these columns somewhat behind the wave - I try to avoid bandwagoning and don't jump onto every internet-related issue that makes headlines. It seems, however, than in this particular case, I may have been before the wave. Though I'm quite sure that these aren't a result of my Boidem column on the subject making the rounds, a flurry of articles in the popular press telling us how important search has become to us have recently been published. Many of these are quite fascinating to read, and have interesting examples, and even points to raise. But they also seem to avoid dealing with one of the most glaring, and distressing, issues related to search. Yes, people are conducting searches right and left, daily, hourly, almost every minute. But they're not searching for anything worthwhile.

Every year, the National Football League Super Bowl rates among the highest rated programs on television. This year, however, it was the halftime show that made the headlines. That's the halftime show that gained instant notoriety when at its end Janet Jackson displayed one of her breasts. Considering the amount of exposure stars permit themselves today, I doubt that we could claim that Jackson's act skyrocketed her to the top of the list of most-exposed stars. But the resulting flurry of web-searches around the incident, or at least around the breast, certainly won her exposure of a different sort. Lycos reported that searches for Janet and her breast became the all-time record holder for most searches in a 24 hour period, certainly a record of some sort.

It's not hard to conceive of numerous possible research projects that might revolve around Janet Jackson and her breast, but something gives me the feeling that the vast number of searches conducted on the subject weren't exactly done with research in mind. What's more, though much can most certainly be said about the beauty of breasts, the fact that Janet Jackson's breast ranks as the most searched for item ever on the web doesn't exactly suggest that those who searched for it had aesthetic considerations in mind. A review of the other items that fill the ranks of the Lycos 50 and similar sites leaves us with a similar impression - research (or aesthetics) isn't what's behind the vast majority of these searchers. Of course we shouldn't be surprised by this, but neither should we take any special pride in it.

There's nothing new about the argument that there's nothing useful on the internet. People have been making that claim for about as long as it's been around. It showed up long ago in cartoons about the internet. Eight years ago Clifford Stoll published one of the first critical books about the internet, Silicon Snake Oil. On's pages on that book we read:

In Silicon Snake Oil, Clifford Stoll, the best-selling author of The Cuckoo's Egg and one of the pioneers of the Internet, turns his attention to the much-heralded information highway, revealing that it is not all it's cracked up to be. Yes, the Internet provides access to plenty of services, but useful information is virtually impossible to find and difficult to access. Is being on-line truly useful? "Few aspects of daily life require computers...They're irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing, speaking, and gossiping. You don't need a computer to...recite a poem or say a prayer." Computers can't, Stoll claims, provide a richer or better life.
Even considering, however, that at some point along the line people actually do place high hopes on technologies, it's a fair guess that not too many internet users are going to expect that their computers are going to make their lives more satisfying. Is having a photograph of Janet Jackson's breast arrive right in front of you on your computer screen a factor in achieving that satisfaction? If yes, it would undoubtedly be a rather minor one. Still, it also has a role to play in the overall scheme of things. Stoll was, of course, right about that richer or better life, but he was also arguing a relatively moot point. As, I suppose, am I.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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