Inquiring Minds

When Google e-mail was first launched, one of its selling points was “search, don’t sort!” The concept was that it was tedious to create categories for your e-mails and then sort them. That’s probably true, and the ability to use a tool like Google to search your e-mails does remove a huge burden – provided you can think of an appropriate key phrase from within the e-mail you’re looking for. If your mind is anything like mine it tends to use synonyms rather than direct quotes to remember what was discussed. The possibility is that you end up searching for a phrase with the correct meaning and incorrect search index. In practice, the labels that you can append to any given e-mail act as a sorting tool with a handy ability to append as many labels as seem appropriate. The result is that I tend to search my sorts.

These are only two of many paradigms for approaching information storage and retrieval, a topic in which I can’t claim to be an expert. A rigid structure is easy to break in as simple a way as talking about two topics in the same e-mail. A lack of structure altogether can make information effectively impossible to retrieve. This lead me to think about the different ways I have of structuring inquiries in the first place, which I think have a few implications that are wider than e-mail storage.

In the Western tradition, it often seems like inquiries begin or exist in question form deriving from the Socratic method. A recent example for me was thinking about what kind of Vampiric conspiracy could or would exist in modern Russia, based on the idea that the secret police of yesteryear were excellent at finding and eliminating Vampires historically – the idea of communist oppression as a kind of freedom is aesthetically appealing to me. Well, as a starting point, I thought about the career of Vladimir Putin before entering politics explicitly and the legacy of that career in terms of Russia fighting off the infiltration of Vampires into their power structure. Is there perhaps a legitimate reason the recent swathes of oligarchs were all quietly moved on?

My first inclination was to frame this as a question: “How would a Vampire Conspiracy assassinate Putin?” In the olden days, I would have gone to my Encyclopedia Britannica and read the entries for Russia and Putin, skimming the text for relevant-looking items. There probably isn’t a heading for “how to assassinate the Russian president” and there definitely isn’t a heading for “Vampiric Agenda in Russia”. From the initial reading, I would have a list of possibly relevant entities (organisations, spies, oligarchs, etc) that could each be followed up in some way.

In the Google Age, the idea of framing a whole question is almost wrong-think. I’m not going to enter the words “how would a” into a google search window. Instead, I’m picking out combinations of key words that might be relevant to the ideas involved, so I might run several google searches like “russian vampires” “putin oligarchs” “russian presidential security”. I’m not really trying to get the same kind of overall sense of the situation that an encyclopedia gives me, I’m trying to cherry-pick from a wider and less regular mass of information some interesting conjunctions and elements, and then build my own picture. The hidden aspect of my googling is that I’m really looking for the question as well as the answer, and I might decide based on some preliminary results that perhaps Putin has already lost control of the war against the Vampires and the presidency is his consolation prize. This leads to radically different scenario possibilities.

Both strategies have their weaknesses. A fixed question can easily lead to a dead end. A non-hierarchical search can fail to even find an appropriate question. I experienced both ends of that situation in the process of developing a thesis about Dashiell Hammett. Trying to answer a specific question about him would have lead to an answer, and probably not about something really satisfying. Simply throwing a lot of well-considered search terms at the problem failed to coalesce into a compelling through-line.

The ability to easily search for information is extremely seductive, but it is also potentially a little risky on a practical level. Architects and Engineers used to have elaborate archival systems for “Trade Lit” – the literature issued by  product manufacturers outlining their range of products and specifications. That required a huge logistical effort on the part of both suppliers and practitioners, now largely not required. The problem that arises specifically for engineering is that information can remain current for some projects at the same time as it is superseded in others. For example, a few years ago they changed the material composition of cement-board sheathing in New Zealand, and issued new documentation. If you rely on a search strategy for finding material strengths, you most easily find the new strengths, so when evaluating an old building you can over-estimate its performance in a fairly substantial way. In the old Trade Lit days, the information for both eras would have been stored together. The whippersnapper engineer needs their grey-bearded guide to remember the change in materials and tell them at the start of their work to a greater degree than before the age of searching. Conversely, searching is far more likely to result in the most-current version of any documentation being used in design, so that the grey-beard’s inability to keep on top of the latest version of every single product in existence is much less of a problem.

The initial question I came up with as a result of these disparate thoughts is whether we need to be concerned that searching information is replacing structuring information. A far more insidious an interesting question has occurred to me as a result of developing this thought – the real concern is whether the inquirer is aware of whether they are investigating structure or instigating a search. Understanding what kind of inquiry you are making must surely be an important part of ensuring that you understand both the methods and limitations of that inquiry, and hence what the alternatives are if the strategy fails to generate the outcomes you need.

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One Response to Inquiring Minds

  1. idiotsavant23 says:

    The initial question I came up with as a result of these disparate thoughts is whether we need to be concerned that searching information is replacing structuring information.

    Maybe you should do some googling around library and information science to get an answer?

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