Of all the marvels of the Internet, key is being able to search it. The information you want could be out there, but it might as well not exist if you can't find it. Searching would still be impressive even if you had to go to a special building downtown to do it; the fact that it's accessible from your home or workplace is simply amazing.
Back in June 2003, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times asked "Is Google God?" That prompted Jeet Heer in The Walrus magazine to respond soon afterward with a two-page flow chart of the history of search engines, using that term to mean "any system that allows us to locate and retrieve information". Heer divides the chart into six eras, from the stories and songs of oral cultural traditions to the rise of script and the first libraries to the time from "Moses to the Middle Ages", when books were handwritten. Due to the vagaries of making each copy by hand, any indexes created would only apply to a single manuscript.
In the 1450s, the fourth era arrived with the appearance of the printing press. This is when the presentation of knowledge began to standardize, when all of the copies in an edition of a book had the same pagination and could thus be indexed. According to Heer, these indexes and other guides were considered controversial, so much so that in 1544, the creator of the first printed concordance to the Bible was sentenced to be burned.
The Enlightenment is Stage 5, when reference works like encyclopedias and dictionaries were created, engraved illustrations became commonplace, and charts began to be used to present things like the Periodic Table of Elements and Carolus Linnaeus's Classification of Living Things. These reflected the increase in documented human knowledge, to the point where information had to be summarized or presented through alternate methods in order to manage it, which also made it possible for the average educated person to access it more easily. Knowledge was becoming available, and in bite-size chunks, too.
Finally, there's the modern era, beginning in 1876 with the development of the Dewey Decimal System. It was a remarkable achievement to set up a categorization system that attempted to anticipate a space on the shelf for every nonfiction book that would ever be written. It's held up pretty well, considering how many subject areas have come and gone in the intervening 131 years. The Library of Congress system followed in 1901, bringing card catalogues into use. Heer makes the point that the golden age of the card catalogue was the 1940s and '50s, when information retrieval services (as performed by humans looking things up and physically going to get them) became a model for the computers being developed at the time.
Each successive era has resulted in more information being created and stored, with progressively more complex systems invented to make it all accessible. In turn, greater numbers of people can and do learn from that data. But in terms of convenience and near-magical speed, it's hard to deny that search engines like Google are miraculous. You don't even have to be 100 percent literate to use them. If you make a mistake in your search term, Google gives you a short list of links (because there are almost always Web pages out there with the exact same spelling error), but it also asks if you meant another similar thing, which is generally what you intended. I use Google as a spell checker all the time for names of places and things.
For the first time, with the Internet comes not only the power to find information but the opportunity to publish it. That's why there are so damn many Web pages. What makes Google so useful is that it's built to make some judgments about a given Web page's relevance to your search, a quality filter of sorts.
But is it just me or is Google kind of off its game these days? Now you usually have to go a couple of pages into the results to close in on what you want. One reason may be the sheer proliferation of Web sites diluting the quality of results, but I find a lot of the first-page crap is corporate and business-related. I don't mind if there's actually information at the end of the link, but I've found that a lot of big sites are able to score high even without containing significant content. I discovered this while looking for some music-fan stuff, only to find sites like MP3.com pegging near the top without even providing a band's complete discography.
Google's other weakness is that a lot of people devote a lot of time to trying to score better placement in search results (check out the 143 million hits for "SEO"), which messes with the playing field, although it's hard to say to what degree. Certainly, with anything involving commerce, there's a motive for chicanery.
What's the next step? Talk of Web 3.0, also known as the commonsense Web, is already surfacing. Who will get us there? Next week, we'll look at plans from the likes of Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, who has an idea or two on how to improve on Google.