Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Google Paradigm and its Discontents

A recent confused of calcutta discussion about search, in which phrases like "search fatigue" and "Google rage" emerged, made me realize that, by virtue (?) of an interface that is so deceptively simple and brutally efficient, we have become hopelessly locked into a "Google paradigm" for thinking about search. This was driven home to me by a comment that Lou Paglia contributed to the discussion. Here is his key paragraph:

The fundamental question for search to answer is to either through interface or algorithmically solve the user’s problem or task. It sounds simple but obviously not. And the solution sounds obvious but clearly not simple. There is the concept of “role-based search” that is emerging as well where by the engine itself ‘knowing’ the role of the user, it can can have a baseline of the type of data and information is important, and the types of questions/answers such a user in that role asks.

I would like to consider this point from my own perspective:

I think that what I (actually Habermas) call an “action situation” is a useful generalization of “the user’s problem or task.” The reason that simplicity eludes us is that this is such a broad category that we have to unpack it ontologically (and probably epistemologically, as well). I took a first crack at the ontology last month during the confused of calcutta discussion of the opensourcing of processes. However, the concept of “role-based search” taps into an epistemological issue that derives from this ontology and needs a lot of further consideration. As I suggested in the opensourcing discussion, we cannot talk about processes in any productive way unless we are as “epistemologically comfortable” with verbs and verb phrases as we are with nouns and noun phrases. Database technology has cultivated a mind-set that is so restricted to nouns and noun phrases (the foundations of all schemata and query languages) that we have pretty much deluded ourselves into believing that verbs and verb phrases are unnecessary. However, if we are going to talk about processes, we have to shatter that delusion, because processes are epistemologically verb-based; and, when Lou introduced the concept of role, he emphasized that search is fundamentally a process! Now there is obviously a lot more to the epistemology of processes than roles. Much of my own research in this area has focused on Kenneth Burke, who developed a terminological framework for motivated action; but I believe that framework can be generalized to any verb-based epistemology, such as an epistemology of processes.

I also think that the comment by Washington DC SEO on the virtue of librarians taps into an important distinction that is often overlooked. A librarian is a service professional, whose “role” is neither defined nor evaluated according to the criteria of a production economy. While search engines are definitely products and need to be evaluated as such, the support of search is, strictly speaking, a service. It is more likely that such a service will be rendered by people with particularly skills for using particular tools, rather than by making those tools available to anyone who needs the service. This latter alternative is basically the crux of the "Google paradigm." Like all paradigms it has confined us to a box, and it is about time that we start thinking outside that box!

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