Search is too good

I remember being eight or nine years old and wandering around the young adult section, trying to find a good book. I would basically just tilt my head and wander the shelves, reading titles. If something sounded unique or interesting, I’d read the first page. If I liked it, I’d take it home. Deep in the fiction section, I stumbled across a BASIC reference book, obviously not written for children and obviously not fiction. Little did I know, that book would transform the rest of my life.

The internet would drastically change the world, but it wasn’t until 1997 that I got on the internet for the first time via AOL. My parents bought me a Borland C Compiler, and I’d spend the next years learning how to create game engines, smart pointers, efficiently doing matrix multiplication, Dijkstra’s algorithms, rastering, AI, and other fun things. I was never interested in writing an actual game, just the tools to build one.

I didn’t have search like we have today. I didn’t have convenient guides to tell me what to learn in what order. I had to figure it out myself. I explored libraries, read open source code that was shared in forums, and asked many questions.

When Google became a thing, it used to sometimes give completely tangentially related results. It was incredibly awesome to explore these spaces and find new communities to involve myself in. I got in the habit of starting my search from the fifth page, which is where all the good stuff was.

Over time, things became even better. I hardly ever make it to the fifth page anymore. I hardly ever don’t find what I need. I do miss exploring though. I miss learning things that are barely related to what I’m looking for, or just wandering around old Yahoo and finding genuinely interesting things.

Today, our choices are structured by recommendation engines, our scope limited by only what we know to search for and people like us. We no longer have a sense of discovery when trying to find an answer and our scope is incredibly small, driven by what we’ve looked for in the past.