Searching for the Future…

While researching in the British Library, I found a newspaper article about Google, which featured this visionary quote:for the future: “Search will be included in people’s brains. When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information.” (Sources listed at end,)

Is that the future of search? We have already moved a long way from the early days of the 1990’s when Google was being developed. But this quotation suggests that, despite the huge advances in search capability, we still have a long way to go before we reach the ultimate search engine!

A book published this year also reveals a great deal about the powerful institution called Google. It gives more background on the vision of the company, with its ideals of a universal system collecting and making accessible the sum of the world’s written and visual information.

In terms of Knowledge Management, these advances in search mean that everyone could potentially have ‘explicit knowledge’ at their fingertips, cutting out all the current difficulties of finding valuable information that is tailored to precise needs. But I guess a robot would still beat us to getting the right stuff – our brains are so easily enticed into distractions which we call ‘information overload!’

Let’s consider some of the advantages of our current search capacity and weigh them against the potential costs.

If you take a picture of an insect that interests you, search engines can now find you similar images, so you can identify what the insect is. Search now is able to understand nuance in many languages, so slowly it is acquiring the ability to recognise unusual phrases such as ‘once in a blue moon’, without being too literal. And with smart phones, you can just pull out a mobile while you are on the move and ask it a question. You will get a somewhat stilted answer – but the capability is very slick indeed. Much more comfortable than looking at a long list of links where the top results are unwanted adverts.

And that at once points to the downside. Google is a commercial company and the adverts are yet another distraction. Not only that, but Google search filters the answers it provides to give you what it has matched as your interests, based on past searches. Clever stuff, but where a searcher does not know this is how Google works, it reduces the element of human choice. Small problems, perhaps given the huge benefits that search can bring to us all. Especially as there are alternative search engines that we can turn to if we don’t like Google. But it serves as a reminder that Google and other services, so ubiquitous and convenient, are part of an economic and political system rather than neutral devices. The initial quotation does therefore conceal the issue of whether it would be wise to accept a search system directly working on your brain, no matter how brilliant its search capacity!

So, how do people keep up with what is available and understand the negative aspects? Knowledge management is the discipline that can offer advice and support, as we negotiate the interface of personal knowledge needs with available technology options. It is certainly not the case that information, useful and erroneous in vast quantities on the internet, makes less need for expertise to be available. The world still needs good guides to the maze of explicit knowledge that is out there.

The book compares Google’s vision to hubris of biblical proportions. Can one company really provide a view of all the information in the world? And if it can, should it? Will the next step forward be to provide tacit information so we can learn from others experience not simply through being being told of the consequences of actions, but feeling them too! The provision of knowledge sources is still all about power – search has the potential to brainwash and subdue, but also to overturn knowledge monopolies and set people free. These are attributes that make it well worth understanding…


Interview Reference:

Book Reference: Hillis K., Petit M., and Jarrett K., (2013), Google and the Culture of Search, NY: Routledge

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