Rethinking Search: 010011

“An anti Google. Or, Maimonides builds a Wiki,” explains composer and poet Chris Mann in a short text on the website of The Jewish Museum in New York – the museum that commissioned the rather particular search engine 010011. Together with Sepand Ansari, Mann has designed a ‘machine’ that is “[a] celebration of the question you are trying to learn how to ask. A machine for making sense.”

A digital desk for research
Mann likens 010011 to a working space similar to that of a desk. Thus, in the place of articles, and some books and notebooks the machine uses digital texts, dictionaries and some links to Twitter and Wikipedia. Just as a desk is convenient for juxtaposing sources of information, 010011 allows all sources of information to be dragged anywhere within the working space it provides. When you enter a keyword in the search box of 010011 it returns lists with texts that use this keyword. When you click on one of these texts it expands and forms a new element that you can drag anywhere you want. You can choose to keep searching in the same list, but it is also possible to enter another keyword and thereby create a new list with texts (still on the same page). There is no limit to the amount of lists you can create or to the amount of keywords you can use.

An important element of 010011 is that you can connect keywords in the opened texts by dragging lines between them. When these keywords are connected a ‘synthesized’ text will form a new element. 010011 also includes a separate box in which you can make notes and it is also used for links and suggestions for possible supplementary searches. To get an idea of what the search engine looks like (although, of course, it’s best to go see for yourself) see the picture given above of a page with lists, links and synthesized texts (the texts in green, blue and red).

The anti Google
So, how does this ‘digital desktop’ form an ‘anti Google’ as Mann proposes? In a reply to questions asked via email, Mann elaborates that 010011 is a way of interrogating links and ideas, and that it employs the user to synthesize responses and connections. In so doing, he argues, it becomes a way of thinking. In contrast to other web search engines that focus on providing you with the most relevant answers, 010011 does not return any ‘answers’ to ‘questions’. Instead, it provides you with sources with which you can formulate questions. In Mann’s words: “while Google is a repository of facts and statements dressed as answers which are dedicated to trying to get you to ask the right questions, 010011 is a way of celebrating the question.” It is a machine for making sense in that it requires your input to make sense of the data it provides based on your keywords. It is an active process, and as Mann concludes in the text on website of The Jewish Museum: “Knowledge after all is only knowledge if it’s in motion.”

To seek information or to answer questions
What is interesting about 010011’s goal to ‘celebrate the question’ is that it introduces questions about what it exactly is that we expect from web search engines. Are we looking for information to make sense with or are we looking for ‘definite answers’ (or both)? To see what we expect from search engines let us look at how we define them. The online Merriam Webster dictionary gives the following definition:

“computer software used to search data (as text or a database) for specified information; also : a site on the World Wide Web that uses such software to locate key words in other sites”

It is notable that the definition only states that you search for data for specified information and that it doesn’t mention questions or answers. Consequently, the definition perfectly describes what 010011 does, but it is questionable whether it also describes what Google does or aims to do. Take a look at what Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt told journalists in a 2007 interview with the Financial Times:

“The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ ”

If it aims to answer such personal questions, it could well be argued that the information users of Google (are stimulated to) seek can no longer be specified as ‘data (as text or a database)’.  The results that Google returns would thus be better defined as answers instead of data.  As the space of this blog is too limited to elaborate on the nature of data a definition taken from the online Merriam Webster dictionary will have to do.  It defines ‘answer’ as following:

a : something spoken or written in reply to a question
b : a correct response <knows the answer>

And ‘data’ is defined as:

[F]actual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation

Mann’s description of Google as “a repository of facts and statements dressed as answers” thus seems quite fitting. In a way, Google resembles an oracle more than it does a search engine.

Data or a friend’s suggestion?
What Mann thus shows us with 010011 is that we might have to reconsider what we expect from search engines. With techniques such as personalization, location awareness and, especially, semantic search techniques, search engines are stimulating searchers to use questions to search for answers rather than using keywords to search for data. These techniques give the impression that they perfectly understand our questions, even if the keywords we use are vague and ambiguous. A good example of how these techniques are currently being used is Google’s recent development of showing instant results with the so-called Google Knowledge Graph. It suggests that it knows what you want to know, and as a consequence, searchers might expect that Google not only knows all the answers, but also that it understands and knows all questions. Stimulated by this belief searchers might then indeed turn to personal questions such as “what job shall I take?” However, if searchers at the same time expect that search engines handle ‘data’ – factual information – this might lead to confusion about what a search engine truly is and does. Searchers should be able to recognize that the ‘instant answer’ given by Google on such a personal question is merely a subjective interpretation (based on algorithms) of the ‘limited’ amount of data it has collected. It is more or less similar to having a friend answer something like: “Based on how well I know you, your location and the vacancies I know of, I think it would be best to go for job ‘x’” (with the difference that of course Google has a far broader knowledge base to derive its answer from). The information provided by a search engine on such personal questions can never be more factual than what a friend would suggest (since it is evenly biased), and it is important that searchers also do not expect it to be more factual than that.

Making sense of search
To summarize and conclude: the search engine 010011 has demonstrated that there is a difference between searching for answers and searching for data. It is important to recognize and understand what kind of results we expect from a search engine in order to avoid confusion between different types of search. Some search engines can be perfectly used to search for data and links to sources, whereas others are great for distilling answers from data they have collected from their users. They all have their merits, but the differences between them have to be clear. Perhaps we should look for new definitions of search that take into account our expectations.

This is the second blog in the ‘Rethinking Search’ series. The first blog was on YossarianLives and lateral thinking.