What do you think: do search engines do only good or do they limit, too?
October 11, 2012
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.