My 8/17/08 Missoulian column
When in the past have you been able to sit down in front of a computer, type in a word and be presented with a list of places around the world where that word appears, in newspapers, library books, computer documents, discussion forums, on blogs, and so on? Not in Stonehenge’s time, that’s for sure. Not even in the old days – only 30 years ago – when library card catalogs and similar indexes ruled search technology.
Modern search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, MSN and others are like magic, aren’t they? Type in a few words and the results simply appear. That magic seems limitless: search engines help us find news and blogs, define words like a dictionary, and locate people. Hackers even use search engines to find easy Web sites to attack.
The idea that high tech is akin to magic is nothing new. When I was writing this, I recalled a few lines line to that effect, but I couldn’t remember exactly where from. I didn’t have to go to the library and find a book of famous quotations, taking a chance that what I was trying to remember would be listed or that I had even remembered enough of the phrase find it. All I had to do was sit down and use Google. And Google took me directly to Wikipedia, the first result of my search for that phrase.
I almost had the line correct – it is, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That aphorism – along with two others – constitute Clarke’s Three Laws, first outlined by Arthur C. Clarke in 1962. Clarke is the late science fiction writer who might be best known for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” published as a novel after he wrote the screenplay with Stanley Kubrick.
To be able to quickly present thousands of results, search engines index the raw content of the Internet, with software bots called “spiders.” Not much can escape a spider – unless you’re savvy enough to know how to block them from your Web site. Spiders work 24/7, scarfing up the Web as fast as they can in order to compete for market share with other search sites. Google is the leader these days, nearing 70 percent of search traffic, according to Cnet.com.
Indexing and cataloging aren’t new. Gutenberg’s press was the Google of the 15th century, presenting information in a uniform edition that made it more widely accessible than handwritten manuscripts. The first known major library at Alexandria was an early Google, because it was a center of information and had to have some kind of an index or way to “search” for a book title or subject. Then came indexes in books themselves, and so on, each becoming more complex and inclusive. Until Google, whose goal is to catalog everything available worldwide.
(By the way, the amount of information available via search engines, compared to what is available via traditional indexes in libraries, archives and other sources is very, very small, and is the source of a fierce debate about what constitutes “information.”)
Does this search magic come at a cost? A piece on the Atlantic magazine Web site titled “Is Google making us Stupid?” is an interesting read. The author, Nicholas Carr, feels as if the availability of quick information from Google has reduced him to a dilettante from a scholar – he skims and dabbles instead of reading deeply – and he finds people who agree with him.
I think that if Google is making us “stupid,” we have no one to blame but ourselves because Google is doing nothing but delivering our own words back to us. We can hardly criticize a library for having a few books we don’t think are valuable. And reading for comprehension and retention is a skill that is our own responsibility to learn.
Carr also points out research that says our minds are malleable and can rewire themselves, even late in life. His point is that Google and easy Internet searching are altering our minds for the worse. I say probably. But at this point, television probably has altered our perceptions much more than Google. TV has been around many years longer and has influenced many more people; Internet search is still relatively new – Google first went live in 1998 – and is an emerging technology.
So Internet searches quickly bring us information, but the instant results also raise questions: Which Web site do we believe? Who is reliable? Search magic requires us to be responsible with the information we find. We can’t believe everything we read, and we can’t afford to not learn to differentiate between sources. If we are inundated with information, maybe we’ll learn quickly analyze what we find.
One possible answer to Carr and the rest of us is in that same Wikipedia entry on Arthur C. Clarke. In his 1999 revision to his book of essays, Clarke added a fourth law. I don’t think it’s overly cynical, but it brings to mind the complexities of trusting information sources and the responsibility that we do our own thinking and question the results of search magic. The fourth law? “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.”
More follow-up on the Domain Name Server flaw: The DNS fix also has exploitable flaws, according to the New York Times, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is accused of moving too slowly to help fix the system.