Friday, July 01, 2011

Search Engines are the Vacuum Cleaners of the 2000's

Imagine you're a housewife. In 1900, you'd wait until your house got very dirty, you'd sweep for an hour, and then your house would be kinda clean. In 1980, you'd wait until your house got kinda dirty, you'd vacuum for an hour, and then your house would be very clean. Either way, you'd spend an hour vacuuming; the only difference is the standard of cleanliness that you're used to.

Now imagine you want to answer a question about, say, which malaria medication is best for you. In 1980, you'd have no idea, and you'd spend an hour looking (where? in health magazines at the library? I have no idea; most likely you'd offload this to your doctor, who would spend an hour looking) and you'd come up with kinda weak information ("my doctor heard of this one study where they said Doxycycline was pretty good"). In 2011, you'd spend an hour looking, and you'd come up with something like this. (reasonably good info, if I do say so myself)

In both cases, the time spent has not decreased, but the quality that you get has improved. The sneaky downside is that the quality you expect has also improved! We (at least I) can't deal with "kinda okay information" anymore- we always want something thorough and cross-referenced with reliable sources.

I think this is good. Certainly, for critical tasks, you want awesome information, just like you want an operating room to be absolutely spotless. But in our everyday lives, just as we should learn to deal with clean-but-not-sparkling houses so we don't spend our lives vacuuming, we should learn to deal with good-but-not-awesome information.

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