“The Search” by John Battelle is a casual and mostly entertaining walk through the last 10 or so years of digital search, mostly but not entirely centered around the phenomenon of Google.
Search technology as contrived today is the act of continually applying better and better algorithms as new patterns are unearthed in the large body of data that is the Web. The first result is a several-billion-dollar advertising business that flattened print and brand advertising.
As the algorithms are still young, there is still room for Search to grow. It is even, notes Battelle, reshaping our “cultural grammar.” Disembodied terms. We search to find information, to locate things to buy, to find a shorter route to what we knows exist, but also, he chides in an aside, to secure our immortality. We search for what we know exists, and we search to discover what we have a feeling may exist.
Battelle mentions Melvil Dewey, of the dreary Dewey Decimal System. But he assigns mathematician Gerald Salton – inventor of Salton’s Magical Automatic Retriever of Text [SMART] in the late 1960s -- as the father of the digital search.
“Salton introduced many of the seminal concepts commonly used in search today, including concept identification based on statistical weighting, and relevance algorithms based on feedback from queries,” he writes, noting how Salton’s work spurred an annual searchers’ get-together [between 1980 and the mid-1990s] knows as the Text Retrieval Conference.
Battelle rightly lingers on Alta Vista, for many the first home page they set. Beginning life as a demonstration of DEC’s Alpha chip and server meant that it held from the start the seed of its downfall. IBM, DEC, Microsoft .. no established tech company, no matter how grand its heuristics hardware or queries .. was likely to successfully start a whole new search-oriented business outside its mainstream business. That Google, with a somewhat defiant non-commercial stance (at the time), emerged as the big kahuna of text retrieval, is in large part ironic, and good fodder for story telling like Bagtetelle’s.
Conclusion – The story has brilliant pacing at the outset and then begins to suffer from the ‘first take on history” syndrome. In the end it’s a collection of magazine stories, or web postings – journalism between hard covers, really. The book would be too offputting, no doubt, if he really devoted a lot of time to ‘splaining’ what goes on in that big-little box called Google. But you can’t fault the author for pushing. The book came out in late 2005, just as Google – Google as Manna, or Google as Moloch, take your pick – reached an initial apogee.