Search

December 24, 2004

SEARCH IS THE new buzz and business in cyberspace, the next big thing -- already upon us. Thank Google for that, of course, with its proprietary algorithm that, in defiance of distance and time, instantly scans enough of the Internet that it seems to deliver whatever we're seeking right to our desktops, right now.

But with Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft and dozens of other competitors -- each with its own search equations -- also pursuing headlong the enterprise of sorting the seemingly infinite depths of the digital universe, organizing it and neatly presenting it to us, questions arise.

If Google or Microsoft tells us this is so -- this is where to go and what to see to find out this and that -- is it just so? Is that all there is to it? Search doesn't merely serve as a Dewey Decimal System; it purports to function as a librarian scanning the world to deliver information most relevant to your request -- and one way or another, usually through related advertising, make a profit in the process.

Google's announcement last week that it will be dramatically expanding its universe of searchable stacks -- by the wholesale scanning of entire collections of some of the world's best libraries -- is just one step closer to delivering on demand the sum of all knowledge sliced and diced, for now still more pretense than real. Many such steps are under way.

In league with universities in China and India, Carnegie Mellon University already is well into a project to digitize and make available online no fewer than 1 million books. Also increasingly coming online these days are vast digital libraries of searchable videos.

Surely we've come a very long way from the heavy encyclopedias of our childhood, the library shelves of our schooldays, even the endless files of our offices. Many cannot conceive of abandoning the richness of books, and we're betting their lovely form will survive. But never in human history has so much information been suddenly available to so many with such ease. "Within two decades," a top university librarian predicted in The New York Times last week, "most of the world's knowledge will be digitized and available, one hopes for free reading on the Internet, just as there is free reading in libraries today."

That has got to be a revolution as profound as the one ushered in by the printing of the Gutenberg Bible 550 years ago. And search is the key -- the Rosetta stone, if you will -- to that new world. Such a wealth of information is next to useless without highly refined guides with which to interact. Of course, when you rely on those search engines, it becomes ever more critical to recall that such guides often profit off your search and increasingly may own the results -- potential conflicts your librarian never so directly posed.

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