Search me, pt. 2

Last week I blogged about how extensively I rely on seach engines — sometimes several dozen searches an hour when I’m cranking on research, or perhaps just thinking about a problem. I’ll search, ponder, search again, surf a few links, get up and walk around, come back, do it again. I suggested that “Search engines aren’t merely the way I find information: They’re part of my basic thought processes.”

Then this weekend I read a brilliant, kick-ass piece by Steven Johnson in the New York Times Book Review, talking about precisely this issue. He’s talking about how his thinking processes have been changed by using software like DEVONthink, which finds interesting associations between documents on your computer — your notes, memos, email, unfinished drafts, copies of things you’ve downloaded from the Web, or (in the case of Johnson, a journalist) your articles. I’m going to quote him at length, because he describes the experience so perfectly:

Modern indexing software learns associations between individual words, by tracking the frequency with which words appear near each other. This can create almost lyrical connections between ideas. I’m now working on a project that involves the history of the London sewers. The other day I ran a search that included the word ”sewage” several times. Because the software knows the word ”waste” is often used alongside ”sewage” it directed me to a quote that explained the way bones evolved in vertebrate bodies: by repurposing the calcium waste products created by the metabolism of cells.

That might seem like an errant result, but it sent me off on a long and fruitful tangent into the way complex systems — whether cities or bodies — find productive uses for the waste they create. It’s still early, but I may well get an entire chapter out of that little spark of an idea.

Now, strictly speaking, who is responsible for that initial idea? Was it me or the software? It sounds like a facetious question, but I mean it seriously. Obviously, the computer wasn’t conscious of the idea taking shape, and I supplied the conceptual glue that linked the London sewers to cell metabolism. But I’m not at all confident I would have made the initial connection without the help of the software. The idea was a true collaboration, two very different kinds of intelligence playing off each other, one carbon-based, the other silicon.

You could call it intellectual cyborgism. I love it.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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