Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Needles and Haystacks


The key to finding things is knowing where they’ve been put. Any kitchen, whether professional, tiny, or average, poses no problem for those preparing meals, locating utensils and ingredients. All kitchens have systems for where things belong.

Shifting backwards only slightly in time, we find another kind of food-related system: the supermarket. Whether high-profile end caps, butcher counters, or any of the specific purpose shelves, we see organization (and know inventory is out of public view.)

What you may not realize is that from any angle, from any moment in time, what you’re looking at is a database. Each item in the market (or in your kitchen) has its name and its place.

Many people think increasing computer power will not only do away with the need for databases but also the brick and mortar stores that use them. Why waste time organizing, they say, when computers find things as fast as we type. But can they really?

If you only have a haystack, it’s a cinch to find a needle using fast, powerful computers. However, needles and haystacks do constitute a database, if only two items. Increase the items a hundredfold, and searching without structure becomes chaotic.

The proponents of the brute force computer approach believe power trumps organization. Why bother with human thought and planning, when we have practically unlimited computer power?

Even if they are right (they’re not), they ignore the other benefits of organization. How often do you buy nothing more than what’s on your shopping list? Other items you buy, for need or impulse, are easily found precisely because of the store’s organization.

The same is true everywhere for retail. Still more valuable are the discoveries we make in libraries. Because the library shelves are organized, we chance upon new authors and titles. Roaming the stacks is the ultimate serendipitous learning experience.

Library books will tell you that humans are smart animals not simply because of the size of their brains but rather how their brains are organized. Evolution improved on raw brute force.

Without the organization of a database, everything is just a jumble of shoes and ships and sealing-wax. With organization, we can easily browse kitchens for a meal, supermarkets for next week’s meals, and libraries for books on eating healthier.

The programs we search the Internet with are called browsers. Without a structure, they cannot browse. Without better search techniques, they can only keep us wandering through the haystack—which is exactly how the browser makers get rich.

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