This is a cross-post from my other blog, the FooBarn. If you find these kinds of topics interesting, check out that blog too as I more regularly write about this type of thing there.
The Peak of Indexed Search?
I think about these types of things and occasionally I lose a little sleep: much of what I do online — professionally, at least — revolves around making information easier for people to find. Fifty years ago I would have been the guy sitting at the reference desk in the library filling out double-punched index cards for one of those little wooden-drawered card catalogs at your local public library. Today, I add metadata to documents and organize files into structurally relevant yet purely virtual trees.
But is all that coming to an end? Do we even need our information to be sorted, shaped and organized anymore?
I don’t have an answer, but I’ve got some reasons why you might argue that indexed information and the searching, seeking, and finding of information through it has peaked.
There was a time when so-called social sharing of information was a much more labour intensive process. My mother-in-law — who readers may or may not know — not so many years ago in fact, used to clip articles from her newspaper that she thought we might find of interest, stuff them in an envelope, stamp and address the same, and a few days later it would arrive in my post box. It’s not really a surprise that she’s taken to services such as Facebook and Google Plus, both of which allow her to do the same thing — pepper my life with articles she assumes might be of interest — but through the simplicity of web, it is now much more frequent.
My dad — who readers also may or may not know — does the same sort of thing. Semi-retired, he sends me funny emails, and I often find my email box sporting a half-dozen email forwards, each containing an image or a joke he’s found amusing and passed along.
Social sharing is easy. It’s getting easier. I have half a dozen task-bar widgets in my browser that let me share on Twitter, or via my blog without even thinking about it. And the thing is, as far as indexed information goes, each of those shares is a view — a set of eyes or a user-read — that has not trickled through Google or Bing’s search engines. Strike one.
Apps, Ecosystems & Niches
The other day I was browsing through the “Genius” feature on my iPad’s App Store and it suggested that I download a free copy of Yahoo’s new customized digital magazine, Editions. I did. And then launched it. The software asked me a few questions about my location and interests, spent a minute or two polling the net, and a minute after that I was thumbing through a magazine-like collection of articles.
Similarly, a few days prior to that I clicked on over to NPR’s new Infinite Player that, inside Chrome, shuffles through a custom playlist of short audio pieces and — apparently — learns over time what I like, skip, don’t like, and so on.
Now, the thing one must understand here is that I’m on the web with all of these applications — my app store, the virtual magazine, and the audio player — and absorbing information I once might have sought out through a search engine. I’m not trapped — per se — inside of any application, but my limited time and attention is being drawn into a closed ecosystem where the internet is being pushed out to me based on my tastes and history. And again — strike two — I never searched for any of it.
Jeopardy, IBM & Siri
Back in February of 2011, I — like a lot of people — tuned into the multi-night airing of “America’s Favorite Quiz Show ®” — despite the fact I’m Canadian — Jeopardy and watched IBM’s supercomputer Watson pummel it’s two human opponents. At the time the media’s big question was NOT “what does this mean for indexed search” but rather something more silly, like “what does this mean for humanity’s future enslavement by intelligent robots.”
Ok, to be fair, I’m sure there were a few media outlets asking the former — but you get my point: it’s not the question of artificial intelligence that is going to impact us in the near future. What everyone should have been amazed at and proclaiming is: “Damn, who needs Google anymore?”
Later, I read a book series, WWW, by Robert J. Sawyer, a fine Canadian Science Fiction author. It is a speculative near-future story about rogue web packets forming the basis for a sentient intelligence on the web. Not really a primary part of the story, but more mentioned offhand, was the idea that as this intelligence grew and started to interact with humanity the first companies to see a hit to their businesses — in fact people just stopped using them — were the search engines, as the “WebMind” did the information indexing heavy-lifting and just gave people the information they were looking for as they asked for it.
A month or so back (though I’ve yet to try it) Apple dropped a consumer edition of this kind of natural language voice search into their new phones. If you haven’t yet heard of Siri for the iPhone 4S, look it up. The reviews (from my browsing) have been mixed, but in five, maybe ten years, who the heck is going to need to type anything anymore. Just ask and you will be given. Strike three?
What’s this all mean for tools like Google and Bing that scour and sort the web? And what does it mean for folks like me who meticulously catalog information repositories? Well, I ask… how did you find this article?