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

November 29, 2003*: I search, therefore I am?

In a well-known, and often referred to, story of over 60 years ago, Jorge Luis Borges suggests a vast library as a metaphor for the entire universe. Borges' library contained volume upon volume, in language upon language, of everything imaginable. Borges tells us that the realization that this library contains everything that will ever be written is a source of happiness:

There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.
There's something captivating in Borges' metaphor, even if we retreat a bit from the phantasmagoric and look at things from a somewhat more down to earth perspective. I, for instance, have always loved libraries. Wandering past shelf upon shelf of books, visiting sections devoted to topics that I'd never known anything about, and discovering that there are often at least ten books on these previously unknown (to me) topics that fascinate me, has always been a source of real pleasure. Libaries were, for me, if not metaphors for the universe, at least hints of the universal. They suggested not only that there is always something more to be known, understood, discovered, but also that there are countless ways of viewing what there is to know. The art of wandering through libraries, however, seemed never to catch on as a popular pastime. The physical reality of libraries somehow seemed to go against the hint of transcendence that they suggested. Perhaps precisely because the internet doesn't demand a physical reality, searching on the internet permits that feeling of transcendence. Searching the internet, sort of a parallel to wandering through a library, has perhaps become a metaphor for how we live our lives.

Searching, however, has existential connotations. We search not because we expect to find answers, but because through that act of searching our lives take on meaning. Like Sisyphus, our happiness stems not from completing the task, but from our total immersion in it. Some people might even go as far as to say that the distraction from what really needs attention is precisely what makes us happy about searching. Today's search engines, however, give us little opportunity to find meaning, or distraction, in an ongoing, everlasting search. We may well conduct searches of that sort today, but it seems to me that we've become as attached as we are to searching because experience has taught us that we really can find what we seek.

A few years ago I wouldn't have written that. There was a time, not too long ago, when conducting an internet search, like a good internet surf, really seemed to be an end unto itself. It was as though we searched for the sheer serendipity of finding something surprising, captivating, unexpected. I don't know if it's simply that my take on this has changed, or that search engines, having ceased being toys and actually become useful and functional tools, truly deliver the goods. And of course it may also be that today there's much more to be found. Whatever, the ultimate success of search engines can perhaps best expressed in the fact that we've come to expect that we'll actually find - not just something, or something of interest, but the answer to what we were looking for. In a sense, the conceit of the X Files has been turned on its head. The truth really is "out there". And it seems as though people really are finding things.

In a manner similar to the folklore that's developed around couples who meet via the internet, an entire subset of stories has developed around the life-saving answers that people have found via internet searches. More well known, and probably more ingrained in internet folklore, is the idea of googling someone. Both the life-saving, and the googling are made possible by what seems to have become an accepted fact - we can find answers to what we want to know. And perhaps there's an addtional aspect to this - searching has become a simple activity. If at one time searching was for professionals who were able to distinguish between different search tools, finding the right one for each particular task, today, though there are still many "experts" who specialize in know just what search site is best for which search, for most of us Google is more than adequate, and always accessible. It's almost become synonymous with searching.

Though the life saving capabilities of search engines are captivating, true to my rather minimalist self, I'm attracted more to the tinier details. Because Google suggests alternative spellings for search terms it feels might be mispelled, for example, popping a word into Google is a simple way to check spelling. One article informs us we can check a great deal more than spelling:
Tomasz P. Szynalski, Polish webmaster of the English-language learning Web site, uses the same principle to correct his English grammar. To decide whether to use "different than" and "different from," he tested both phrases on Google. Since both phrases turned up more than a million results, he decided that both were valid.

"Google is better than grammar books, because the results show REAL contemporary language, not the opinions of grammarians," he wrote.
And it's when we approach Borges' library not as a source of answers to the riddles of life (attractive as that may be), but as an ever-present resource for information that borders on the mundane and the banal, that we start to realize the real value of search engines.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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