UnGoogleable: Search Without Search

UnGoogleable: Search Without SearchThe Internet Mapping Project.

@ocugwu takes the road less queried.

Imagine, for a moment, a distant future in which Internet search as we know it has ceased to exist. In this future, new mindreading technology has negated the need to ever again type search terms into a little box in your browser, as most of us do several times a day today. Instead, all you have to do is think of a query—even a half-formed, late-night lark of a query, and instantly the single perfect, most relevant response to your inquest appears on your screen.

Wondering about a peculiar-looking bug bite on your left forearm? It’s from the brown recluse spider—indigenous to the southern states but seen recently migrating north. You’ll want to get it treated early. Racking your brain trying to identify that character actor you saw on Mad Men?  Why that’d be Ray Wise, b. 1947. You may know him from Twin Peaks, season 5 of 24 or as the devil himself in the cancelled CW series, Reaper.

With this technology, the vast and sprawling array of information on the Web has been condensed into convenient, personalized and instantly gratifying morsels of knowledge—each one barely a single step removed from your natural mind. It has made most forms of research effortless to the point of being meaningless, saved countless hours of feckless browsing, and perhaps, we might find one day in the distant future, made our lives much more dull and predictable.

There isn’t, last I checked, any such mindreading tech currently on its way to the assembly line. But a look at recent major changes to search made by both Google and Bing would suggest that both companies see this future, or something similar, as a sort of aspirational endgame.  The idea is to remake search into a more intuitive and personal experience, but I think it’s fair to ask now, while the microchips are still in our laptops and not in our heads: How intuitive is too intuitive? And how personal is too personal?

 
Half of the fun of browsing is, well, browsing.
 

Late last month, Google began rolling out what it calls the “Knowledge Graph,” a new feature of search that pulls pertinent information about a given query from all over the Web (including Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook, but also more obscure sources) and sticks it directly in the upper-right-hand corner of search results. Google touts the Knowledge Graph as a way to provide general information in a more direct and “human” manner. You can still click through to the source material and uncover yet more obscure info, like how Marie Curie, as a Nobel laureate, briefly became a “home wrecking” tabloid sensation; or that velociraptors, contrary to Jurassic Park, were actually the size of chickens—but you probably won’t. Enough salient factoids to satiate the little waves of curiosity that enthrall the average Web surfer are now right there on page 0.

Bing, for its part, is innovating on the social level. The marquis feature of its latest version, which debuted last Friday, is a new side panel that leverages your friends on Facebook and Twitter to help deliver more personalized search results. So if you’re planning a trip to Belize or making lasagna from scratch, Bing will show you people you know (or at least follow) who have posted on the subject, what it is that they posted, and encourage you to ask them about it. This system, of course, is based on the truism that people place a premium on information that comes from friends.

The flip side of both of these efforts to make the Internet more intuitive and personal is that they, at the same time, also make it smaller and more insular. A search that provides answers, rather than putting you on the path to finding those answers for yourself, robs you of the experience of stumbling upon all the weird and fascinating corners of the net that helped make it so remarkable in the first place.  Likewise, a search relegated to your social circles is of little help when what’s needed is an unexpected perspective.  I’ve always been able to ask friends for restaurant recommendations— the reason I love the Web is because it introduces me to enlightened strangers.

Part of the beauty of the Internet is that it’s infinite. And half of the fun of browsing is, well, browsing. Everyone likes to come home to a well-prepared meal, but most people don’t want it pre-chewed. As search engines begin to reflect our personal desires and connections more directly, they run the risk of giving us— or, perhaps more accurately, exacerbating—an unfortunate case of tunnel vision. Sometimes the most important answer is to a question you didn’t know to ask.

 

Previously on UnGoogleable: The 9 People You Meet On Instagram

Tags: ungoogleable, bing, google
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