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He Who Does Not Know How To Query

I spent a few hundred hours doing library research when I was working on translations of my great-grandmother’s Hebrew books. A lot of that time went into reading reference materials about the Haskalah period in Eastern Europe, chasing down newspaper references on microfiche and stumbling through critical essays published in literary journals from the 1880′s.

The work at the National Library in Israel was spread over three or four trips of several months each to Jerusalem. I also made several trips to Jewish library collections in Boston and New York, plus innumerable bookstore expeditions. The research does not explicitly appear in the book of translations I eventually published. But it was extremely valuable in terms of my understanding the context for her work, and for being able to state with some confidence that I was including all of her known published efforts in Hebrew.

Research, both scholarly and casual, has fundamentally changed with advances in wealth and technology. Card catalogs with cross-references were once the search engines of their day that allowed researchers without encyclopedic knowledge of a field to zoom in on likely books to read. The index at the back of a book is also a form of a search engine with pre-defined queries, as were concordances, periodical indexes and abstracts from magazines and newspapers, reference works on nom de plumes, etc. The vast majority of these resources have been digitized, often included in databases, some freely accessible and others by subscription.

Many people believe that digitization, along with the omnipresent query box, represents a tremendous leap forward for human knowledge. Yet, when I saw the announcement of Google’s development of a wearable search engine in the form of eyeglasses, I couldn’t help imagining the questions asked by the four sons of the Passover Hagada in this 21st century context.

The wise son, a scholar with sufficient knowledge to ask a detailed question, would likely find Internet search useful for running down the occasional fact on Wikipedia and other reference oriented websites. And being wise, he would understand that the omnipresent (and for website owners, omnipotent) search engine box is not omniscient, and would know when to cut his losses and return to serious study.

The wicked son would be in hog heaven with Internet search. Anything he desires, he can bypass parental supervision and find, and thanks to piracy, he won’t even need a credit card to download it or watch it. The wicked son would rush to post YouTube videos of himself asking his father, “How can God allow evil in the world,” with plenty of editing to ensure the old man looks the fool.

The simple son asks “What is this,” and in place of a father who will understand the context of the question and educate his son, he’ll get the most accurate and definitive answer I’ve seen on Google in years:

The simple son

Finally we have the fourth son, he who doesn’t know how to ask a question. In modern times, the fourth son would be he who doesn’t know how to type a search engine query. But perhaps, between geolocation tracking and personal information garnered through constant monitoring, Google glasses will be able to make the query for him. “Let’s see,” Google will reason, “It’s late morning, the subject likes fast food, and he’s located near a strip mall with several of our fast food advertisers. Let’s display that on the glasses and, wait, what’s this? A car has pulled up and a strange man is asking the boy if he wants a ride. A ride will get him to the fast food restaurant faster, and a man with a car is more likely to be able to buy more fast food products than the subject, who only has $1.63 in his pocket.”

Getting back to the library research I was doing in the late 90′s. Some of the most interesting bits of insight I came by through reading the 1880′s newspapers were in the classified ads. The number and variety of ads by Agunot, abandoned women seeking information about missing husbands who were last seen in this or that country and city, were heartbreaking. Without proof of the husband’s death or a legal divorce (a get) these women were stuck in limbo for the rest of their lives.

There were always ads for steamship lines offering one-way tickets to the new world, and a fair number of announcements for newly published books. And the ads for patent household devices in the days before the automobile cast quite a light on the living conditions at that time. It was truly a case where the journey was more important the object of the search, and the time consuming detours routinely yielded fruit that an easily discovered fact never could have done.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture at a posh private college with a large number of students in the audience who were enrolled in a related seminar.  After the lecture about the Cairo Genizah, the nature of archives and what documents can tell us about history, the professor of these students requested that each of them write a question on an index card and swap it with a neighbor for peer review before asking. All of the questions turned out to be variations on the theme of “What’s was your favorite document from the Genizah?” and “How many other undiscovered archives are there?” The parents of these students are paying $40,000 a year for a liberal arts education and getting back scholars who don’t know how to ask a question. But maybe I’m being unfair and those poor students would have done better if the presenters had only concluded with a graphic of  “Fun questions to ask.”

I’m skeptical of the road search engines are leading us down in the information age. I sometimes think that the Internet is turning into a giant game of Trivial Pursuit, except it’s somehow been confused with the pursuit of knowledge. I believe I’m seeing this game extend into colleges and graduate schools, where students are led to believe that reading books in just an inefficient way to achieve their educational goals. Search engines have freed students from the tyranny of book learning.

I just hope those Google glasses come in a rose colored variety.


A week after my post, a sort came out about Yale journalism students in an elite course who believed that all the answers to Watergate could have been found on the web, before the story was broken by real journalists and their sources! Read about it here:

1 comment to He Who Does Not Know How To Query

  • Bina

    Yes, I concur and yet I am also hopeful. I’ve heard some extraordinarily ignorant questions asked at public lectures yet they do allow real ‘out of the box’ responses too. I’m reading Iain McGilchrist’s Master and his Emissary which also introduces some novel concepts on how human knowledge is developing.

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