Let's Make Robots!

What do you think: do search engines do only good or do they limit, too?


I'm putting this before you because if you're reading this, chances are you're brilliant and well-qualified to add insight to my thinking about this matter.  For reasons that will become apparent shortly, I was going to request that only older LMR members contribute to this thread-but as CtC recently pointed out we have some very intelligent and able younger contributors, so it be behooves me to ask for everyone to mull this one over and put it out there.


Before the advent of hypertext and search engines (let’s say pre-1998, though http and the www were born more than a half decade before that) the main method of self-directed learning was through libraries.  I assume this is more or less true despite geography (though I might be romanticizing the European experience in that I imagine they had better, older and cooler than the ones we had stateside, but I digress.)  When you had a question about how to do something, you’d go to the library, look up a subject in the card catalog (and later on a database, but the next step was still the same) then you’d make a hard copy of what you found in that index and hit the stacks or microfilm to find the books or articles that were listed.


Once you had that media, you’d look in the tables of contents or the indexes to try to guide you to the answers you wanted.  Along the way, you had to take in a lot of information you weren’t looking for-sometimes full chapters-in order to find what you were looking for.  Along the way, you were sort of forced to learn all sorts of ancillary facts.


For example, as a kid I was obsessed with Lasers.  There were about three books at the local public library that covered the subject.  One was way too technical for a 10 year old, but it had information about their construction that the other two books just couldn’t touch-things about half-silvered mirrors, crystal doping, gas mixtures, frequency generators and what were at the time nascent LED Laser systems.  All I was trying to do was figure out how to make one (and at the time it was impossible-now it would be second nature, even to a 10-year old with rudimentary knowledge of soldering guns and flash lights.)  The thing is, these secondary facts became useful eventually in other realms-like when I worked as a private investigator for example, knowing how to read a beam bounced off a window or what was really going on with “one-way” mirrors.


Today, if you wanted to do the same thing, search engines would focus in like a laser (play on words intentional) to the information that you’re looking for.  Type in “how do I make a laser” and you’ll get an instructable complete with pictures of the breadboard and catalog numbers for the driver and diode.  You wouldn’t however learn that there were such things as helium-neon or ruby crystal lasers.  You wouldn’t know that “doping” referred to two different types of construction processes in unrelated laser families.  You wouldn’t learn the history of the Laser or the Maser.  In short, you wouldn’t get the benefits of the knowledge you gained but weren’t looking for.


So while search engines have undeniably moved us forward, I wonder: have they also limited us?  Has the ability to focus on the information you want right now and get only the question at hand answered robbed us of lateral solutions to as of yet un-posed questions or remembered knowledge that eventually would, if not answer questions, point you down the right path?  And worse, is the instant access to information robbing us of our appreciation for knowledge?  When we have a site like LMGTFY.com as a joke, have we become so jaded that our collective experience is worthless to us unless someone has blogged about it?


Personally, I think there has to be a balance somewhere.  We should find mechanisms to widen our searches and encourage others to do so too.  We should respect the opinions of those we owe our knowledge too-on this site, for example, we have several professional engineers on whose shoulders we can stand to benefit from years of experience.  But “just Google it” is a very unsatisfying and dangerous answer when it’s applied to everything, or for the wrong reasons.




Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

I found myself agreeing with this idea initially but could it be that it is just purely information overload?
The gathering of information happens at a much faster rate today than it did years ago with books and public libraries. I think the mind needs a certain time for new knowledge to burn in. If you just keep shovelling more on top then some squeezes out the sides.
Maybe we don't have or retain as deep a knowledege on subjects today but perhaps we have a small amount of knowledge on a wider range of subjects.
In any case, I could see this syndrome you have raised easily ending up as a scientific paper somewhere if it hasn't already because I wouldn't doubt how the capability of search engines has altered our minds in one way or another.

I think search engines do tend to cater for and encourage short attention spans however, if you are truely interested in a subject then they also provide links to related information.

When I am interested in a subject I follow related links and often find myself learning about related subjects that I would not have come across in the old days of libraries and card catalogs.

Overall I think the search engines are good but sometimes they do seem to miss information or redirect you to information you did not want.

I have a health problem that I'm told is common for my age but when I search for information about it, I only get adds for medicine. Not one link to an explanation of what causes the problem.


Probably one for Wikipedia and then trawling the references section, assuming you still knew the name of the condition.
That's an even bigger bag of snakes. The Internet can make anyone think they have anything. Superman could have a tingling in his shoulder and become convinced he suffered an amputation. One of my tumors was a ACTH-secreting pituitary variety, which means I had what's called "Cushing's Disease." This is a very rare condition, striking something like 4 per million, but It causes your adrenal glands to squirt cortisol like a fireplug after a car crash. One of the side effects for most people is uncontrollable weight gain no matter what caloric limitations they impose (I had a genetic resistance to this part thank heavens.) As you can imagine, that is a very popular disease among people who don't like to diet or exercise. I got involved temporarily in an online community that was allegedly oriented towards support for Cushing's victims, but which it became apparent eventually was actually a site where obese women came together to figure out ways to trick their doctors into (mis)diagnosing them or to commiserate about how dumb their doctors were for not agreeing with them that they had the disease and instead relying on the science which indicated they didn't. However, it was always obvious why the n00bs found the site-when they introduced themselves, if the first thing they listed was a weight problem, they probably didn't have it. If it was another symptom, we took it seriously.

In my case I am talking about a bone growth in my shoulder that was pinching a nerve. I can't remember the name of the problem. The answer was to excersise my left arm more because I am right handed and my shoulder muscles were pulling my spine to one side.

My dad had something very similar and had to have surgery to carve the spur down. If you can get out of having to have that, count yourself fortunate. Unless you were looking forward to the opiates. They gave him the good stuff, that's for sure.

Okay-this is kind of meta.  What does it say about the subject when birdmun's reply is just a link?

Valid and a testament to the growing reliance on Google as an aid to memory,. also, it show us that Birdmun is indeed a witty fellow  :D  

I think of Bird as LMR's Gandalf the White. Okay, some of that has to do with the beard, but mostly it's that he's the go-to wizard for just about any query-often better than "the algorithm." That's why the link was both perfect and surprising!