A Catalogue Of Human Experience


April 28, 2017

You may think that the internet is too vast and too changeable to order or catalogue or even search – but that’s exactly what search engines are programmed to do. ‘Spiders’ crawl over vast quantities of data to pick out keywords from a search and return with a hopeful: “is this what you were after?” in mere milliseconds. (Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but too complicated to go into here.) The point is, some clever developers, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, discovered a way to rank the pages and pages and pages and pages of information to create a giant reference library that could be searched with a few clicks.  

Google is still the most popular search engine and even has the honor of being made into a verb (to ‘Google’ – nobody ever says “I Binged it” or “I Yahooed it”). And it is this success at somehow creating order from chaos that was the foundation for an even more audacious undertaking. The scanning in of EVERY book ever written so quotes could be searched in much the same way.

Google Book Search began 15 years ago and still isn’t complete. Moreover it hit more barriers than expected and not just the obvious logistical barriers. Legal and copyright wranglings have dogged the already difficult process and that’s before you even get into the foreign language texts with numerous alphabet differences and ancient texts with the vagaries of ancient languages to contend with. In fact, once you look at the task ahead in the cold light of day it’s a wonder that Google ever started it in the first place.

But it did. And the fruits of 15 years’ work are logged in the ‘more’ tab at the top of a Google search engine page – past the usual images and videos search tabs. “You have thousands of years of human knowledge, and probably the highest-quality knowledge is captured in books,” Sergey Brin told The New Yorker at the time. The task to stop the terrible misinformation (alternative facts!) and misquoting of literature and to help the human race advance in no small way, is laudable but flawed.

Can the human experience really be catalogued by the internet? Yes and no. It is a compendium of popular culture and satire and complaints and horror and wit and humor and joy – but only ever fleetingly so. A naked selfie from a celebrity regularly “breaks the internet” but is soon forgotten in favor of a misjudged ad campaign or faux pas from a politician.

Literature, like scientific studies or mathematical theories or works on nature or religion or astrology or marine biology hold a wonder that isn’t fleeting. It is this permanence that somehow doesn’t suit the internet as we know it – because this information has to be viewed as a whole. It can’t be so easily distilled into a pithy one liner that will inevitably be attributed to Mark Twain.

Scott Rosenberg’s brilliant blog How Google Book Search Got Lost is a cautionary tale about how trying to enter every book into a searchable database really did ‘break the internet’ or rather break the internet search engine. The moral of the story is: treat literature with respect.

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