Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Elements of Search, Part One


Searching is a problem as old as the human mind. Many of our preliterate ancestors hid what they couldn’t carry when they moved to find new food sources. To remember these hiding places they couldn’t make notes or draw maps. Perhaps they kept a small unique stone from the area as a reminder. Better than the generic string-tied-on-a-finger.

Searching was a problem long before anyone thought of computers. Only us old-timers remember, but once you had to look up words in a book called a dictionary. Words you didn’t know how to spell. Crazy as it seems now, back then this was the only way to spell check. Archaic, if not prehistoric.

The searching paradigm has many variables, but most of it can be characterized as seeking answers to questions. The answer isn’t always information. It could be an object, as when we look for a book in the library. Thanks to Melvil Dewey, US public libraries are fairly well-organized. But his 135 year-old system is groaning under the weight of massive new categories he never anticipated—computers are just one.

Even with the help of computers, the fundamental search problem remains the same: how do I ask a question if I don’t know how the answer is categorized, systematized, formulated, organized, configured, arranged, grouped, etc.? If I don’t know what my target looks like, how can I try to match it?

This is the problem of how to search. The other problem common to all searches, before and after computers, is knowing where to search. If you need to open a difficult jar of pickles, you go to the kitchen (likely you’re already there), and search in the drawer where the miscellaneous utensils are kept. (Not to be confused with the kitchen miscellaneous junk drawer.) Usually a simple task, even in a strange home.

If none of this sounds like what happens when you use a search engine, you’re right. Instead of building on search methods humans have used literally for millennia, the creators of search engines have gone their own way. Where they’ve gone, and why, will be discussed in Part Two.

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