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

    Oh my dear fellow searcher….

    I have been lamenting to my friends and family for a few years now… “Google is broken!”

    I KNOW I am in a feedback loop on the web now. I try hard to get out of it, but the whirlpool is strong.

    The very thing I used to LOVE about the Google back in the beginning, was the possibility I would be offered some response I was NOT looking for… I can’t tell you how many times I would say to someone… “I was on the internet the other day, and I don’t know HOW I got there, but I found this
    web site….” and most of the time it would be some fascinating blog or hobbyist’s dream source of knowledge about everything you could ever want to know about how to tie flies, or make homemade cheese. AND it would not be a commercial site either. I would be reading information shared by someone who did what they did because they loved it, not because they were out to make money from it.


    They have taken a magic carpet and turned it into a plastic Big Wheel.

    A toy for children.

    The heart breaks.

  2. Deborah


    I just spent 15 minutes doing a few searches with duckduckgo.

    My my my…. feels like old times.

    I’ve bookmarked the forums and intend to follow what’s going on there, and use this search engine for a while and see what I notice different. I like what I’ve seen so far. THANK YOU!

  3. RRH

    I TOO use duck duck go, but the rule in OUR house (I have a 12 year old son), when you want the meaning of a word, look in the HUGE Websters dictionary my dad gave me in 1983 for my graduation;) AND when researching a subject, START with the 1986 World Book encyclopedia I bought at the thrift store for $20.00…all 40 volumes;) and THEN search duck duck go as well as other books;)

  4. Janet

    RRH, great house rules; however, you should seriously consider getting rid of that 1986 encyclopedia set and get the latest edition. Or at least tell your son to consult the latest one at the local library. Sending someone to do research in a 27-year-old reference book doesn’t send quite the right message…

  5. Mike

    For what it’s worth, I was reminded of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer in which the main character, Binx Bolling, explains: “Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life …. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

    And a littler later on: “… when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness. Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible. Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it — but disaster.”

  6. Shaloo Shalini

    Interesting perspective. I believe you are assuming that Google’s and Kurzweil’sAI is going to be a ‘perfect filter’ that would no longer offer you information that you were not looking for but discover by chance when you say…
    “…I would be offered some response I was NOT looking for”
    As much as that is complimenting Google (they deserve quite a bit of it no, doubt), you may be underestimating the markeeters and creative folks. You never know – with all AI and better algorithms and creativity out there in the technology realm, you might just find even more serendipitious chance discovers and bettter ones at that!
    Hope is eternal.

    #PS: I am a big fan of ‘Big Switch’ perspectives since 2008.

  7. Booyah

    Google has been “broken” for me for quite some time. I used to be able to construct a carefully constructed Boolean search and always get what I was looking for within the top five results. These days, not so much so. At work I am often searching for gene names, and Google tries to correct them into words. I travel a lot so Google gets fooled by my locations, continuously trying to feed me “local” results that are no longer local. At home, I let my three-year old use my computer from time-to-time. That ruins my Google searches for at least a week.

  8. Rakesh Gilikenahalli

    For me, the perfect Google interface would be:

    1. You type your search query
    2. Google gives you an answer. No wasting time with multiple links.

  9. Nick Post author

    That sounds like a great search engine, Rakesh. But I don’t think the Google name would work for it. It would need a new name. I would suggest calling it Lobotomy.

  10. mikey

    as for google trying to predict what i want, just like microsoft has been trying for years, i can’t express how frustrating that is. it would be like having a nagging wife. seriously google, stop this nonsense and build our hoverboards.

  11. The man

    I have the same problem with my car. Every time I start it up to go for a trip it takes me right where I wanted! Not once has it taken me to new places so that I can widen my horizon and find new truth and meaning.

    Interestingly, I have never found that to be a problem.

    Seriously, if you exptect Google to “search for truth and meaning, for love, for transcendence, for peace, for ourselves”, the YOU have a problem. And neither Google or Internet is the answer.

  12. Nick Post author

    Personally, I really hope that Google puts an “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the dashboard of its driverless car.

  13. patricedusud

    This is the announced end of the wonderful serendipity, the fractal nature of the research no other goal than to enlarge one’s horizon. It is quite a pity!
    A french reader

  14. Gerald

    I agree the change is limiting. I feel it most in Google News. It used to introduce me to publications I didn’t already know, especially foreign, English-language news sites. That happens now only if I really push for it using Google News *search*; it used to happen automatically on the main news page. OTOH, I wish I could get a News-Corp-free Google News, but it keeps offering me Fox and other News Corporation links, even though I never click on them. It also overserves me the NY Times as my “preferred source” even though my real preference would be for a variety that introduced me to more small players and foreign and off-the-beaten-path sources.

  15. Melanie Reed

    This is all reminds me of a quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: “Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically. But it can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.” More and more culture and the forces reshaping it towards homogenization are pushing us here.

  16. Joe Eason

    I find it interesting that in the Marketplace version of the story (link at the bottom of the article), the poetry has been cut out. Because we don’t have time for that effete nonsense…

  17. Rakesh Gilikenahalli

    Sorry for multiple posts. Here is Zuckenburg’s quote.

    Zuckerberg said Facebook’s graph search will let a user start with “a precise query and return to you the answer, not the links where you might get the answer.”

  18. Brutus

    Hard to believe that amidst all the watching and tracking and surveillance, mostly for the purpose of narrowcasting ads (which is Google’s real income stream), you never conjure up the words Big Brother. And this is being undertaken by a private entity, not that a public or governmental one would make it any more palatable. However, we already know that the content of our thoughts and behaviors are not of any real interest to the watchers, only establishing increasingly efficient connectivity between us and those who can sell us stuff, which is apparently trending away from responsiveness to anticipation.

    You also wrote: “Because it [Google’s new search priority] 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.” This fits with your theme, the bounding outwardness of search, but overlooks the ultimate point of such restlessness: a rich inner life. A tradition of interpreting the aphorism “know thyself” extends all the way back to ancient Greek and Egypt, though Romantic literature and New England transcendentalism are probably more relevant to us today.

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