The digital age has changed what it means to 'search'

As more sites look to monetize web search functions, a commentator questions what it means 'to search.'

When we talk about "searching" these days, we're almost always talking about using Google to find something online.

That’s a big change for a word that long carried existential connotations -- a word that had been bound up in our sense of what it meant to be human. We didn’t just search for car keys or missing socks. We searched for truth, for meaning, for transcendence. Searching was an act of exploration that took us out into the world, beyond ourselves, in order to know the world, and ourselves, more fully.

In its original form, the Google search engine did just that. It transported us out into a messy and confusing world -- the world of the web -- with the intent of helping us make sense of it.

But that’s less true now. Google’s big goal is no longer to read the web. It's to read us.

Last month the company hired Ray Kurzweil, an artificial intelligence expert, as its director of research. In the future, he says, Google will know so much about you that it will be able to deliver information before you even ask for it. You won’t need to search at all.

That future is already taking shape. You can see it in the personalized search results Google provides based on your earlier searches.

And you can see it in a new Android app call Google Now. It tracks your location and uses prediction algorithms to deliver useful information to your smartphone preemptively.

These days, Google's search engine doesn’t push us outward so much as turn us inward. It gives us information that fits the pattern of behavior and thinking we’ve displayed in the past. It reinforces our biases rather than challenging them, and subverts the act of searching in its most meaningful sense.

There was a time when search engines opened new vistas for us. Now, they hold up a mirror to us, giving us back a reflection of ourselves. Search has become a tool for self-absorption.

About the author

Nicholas Carr is author of the book, "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains."

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