The searchers


When we talk about “searching” these days, we’re almost always talking about using Google to find something online. That’s quite a twist for a word that has long carried existential connotations, that has been bound up in our sense of what it means to be conscious and alive. We don’t just search for car keys or missing socks. We search for truth and meaning, for love, for transcendence, for peace, for ourselves. To be human is to be a searcher.

In its highest form, a search has no well-defined object. It’s open-ended, an act of exploration that takes us out into the world, beyond the self, in order to know the world, and the self, more fully. T. S. Eliot expressed this sense of searching in his famously eloquent lines from “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Google searches have always been more cut and dried, keyed as they are to particular words or phrases. But in its original conception, the Google search engine did transport us into a messy and confusing world—the world of the web—with the intent of helping us make some sense of it. It pushed us outward, away from ourselves. It was a means of exploration. That’s much less the case now. Google’s conception of searching has changed markedly since those early days, and that means our own idea of what it means to search is changing as well.

Google’s goal is no longer to read the web. It’s to read us. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and AI speculator, recently joined the company as its director of research. His general focus will be on machine learning and natural language processing. But his particular concern, as he said in a recent interview, will entail reconfiguring the company’s search engine to focus not outwardly on the world but inwardly on the user:

“I envision some years from now that the majority of search queries will be answered without you actually asking. It’ll just know this is something that you’re going to want to see.” While it may take some years to develop this technology, Kurzweil added that he personally thinks it will be embedded into what Google offers currently, rather than as a stand-alone product necessarily.

This has actually been Google’s great aspiration for a while now. We’ve already begun to see its consequences in the customized search results the company serves up by tracking and analyzing our behavior. But such “personalization” is only the start. Back in 2006, Eric Schmidt, then the company’s CEO, said that Google’s “ultimate product” would be a service that would “tell me what I should be typing.” It would give you an answer before you asked a question, obviating the need for searching entirely. This service is beginning to take shape, at least embryonically, in the form of Google Now, which delivers useful information, through your smartphone, before you ask for it. Kurzweil’s brief is to accelerate the development of personalized, preemptive information delivery: search without searching.

In its new design, Google’s search engine doesn’t push us outward; it turns us inward. It gives us information that fits the behavior and needs and biases we have displayed in the past, as meticulously interpreted by Google’s algorithms. Because it reinforces the existing state of the self rather than challenging it, it subverts the act of searching. We find out little about anything, least of all ourselves, through self-absorption.

A few more lines of poetry seem in order. These are from the start of Robert Frost’s poem “The Most of It”:

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.

I’m far from understanding the mysteries of this poem. As with all of Frost’s greatest lyrics, there is no bottom to it. To read it is to be humbled. But one thing it’s about is the attitude we take toward the world. To be turned inward, to listen to speech that is only a copy, or reflection, of our own speech, is to keep the universe alone. To free ourselves from that prison — the prison we now call personalization — we need to voyage outward to discover “counter-love,” to hear “original response.” As Frost understood, a true search is as dangerous as it is essential. It’s about breaking the shackles of the self, not tightening them.

There was a time, back when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were young and naive and idealistic, that Google spoke to us with the voice of original response. Now, what Google seeks to give us is copy speech, our own voice returned to us.

UPDATE: A version of this post aired as a commentary on the January 15 edition of public radio’s Marketplace program.

Photo from John Ford’s “The Searchers.”

29 thoughts on “The searchers

  1. Deborah

    I just wanted to thank Chris again for the link to

    I have been using it for all my searches for a week. I LOVE it. I’m finding what I’m looking for much easier, AND I am getting links to more private citizen blogs and web sites, rather than the commercial ones. This is a big part of the reason I DO like the internet. It connects me with ordinary people who are sharing their passions in life. I’m having a better chance of finding those people now. It feels like old times*… ;-)

    * (Old times… ha ha…)

  2. Chris Nahr

    Glad you like it! I have been using DuckDuckGo as my default search engine for months now, and I’m quite happy with it. Occasionally it doesn’t find some specific website and I have to fall back on Google, but that’s rare.

  3. sjgknight

    I read a philosophy article on this issue regarding the utility of google as an epistemic tool, and the risks of personalisation recently which I thought was a really interesting approach :-). I wrote a summary of it and commentary (which you’ll disagree with I think!) here

    Depending on what they’re doing, I’d re-evaluate my comments, but the question of what they should do – to be “epistemically valuable” is nonetheless a very interesting approach.

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