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Articles, Philosophy

The search engine revolution (PEM Editorial June 2011)

By Ooi Kee Beng

I REMEMBER fidgeting for endless hours on the Internet back in the mid-1990s. To be honest, that was the reason why my studies took so long to complete.

The browser available then was a little application called NCSA Mosaic. There were very few pages to go to at that time, to be sure, and I was more interested in finding executable files to download. These were mainly simple but enticing games.

With the number of sites increasing astronomically, the pressing need for a good search mechanism became very obvious. Early ones to appear publicly had names like Alta Vista, Excite and Infoseek. Today, the lucrative search engine business is dominated by Google, followed by Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing.

Indeed, the Internet is able to be so influential because it is oiled by powerful search engines. Being caught right in the middle as we are at the moment, the profound consequences of this search engine revolution may not be apparent to us yet.

But the trends are clear enough. As surely as we chat with colleagues in the neighbouring office cubicle through emails or Facebook, we keep in touch with friends and events on the other side of the world the same way. Space and time, in that sense, are greatly diminished, even become irrelevant.

This poses a big problem for governments, who are largely territorial, geographically and conceptually. The more their power depends on discourse hegemony, the bigger the trouble they are in, as citizens collectively seek out alternative discourses and information.

Collectively is the key word here.

Political impulses decide what people search for on the Web; what they write into it and what they read from it. Thoughts congregate on the Web. It is thus becoming clear to more and more governments that the only effective way they can influence thinking is to compete on the Web. Controlling the traditional mass media will no longer be enough.

This revolution is philosophical as well. It is changng what we mean by effective knowledge. If I can instantaneously confirm details at the click of a browser button, my mind will not need to be too particular. It can concentrate on the big picture instead.

One forgotten discussion from the early days of the Web which needs reviving is whether the hypertext markup language (HTML) underlying it and which makes the endless links to any other conceptual spot in the Internet universe instantaneous and possible, is a much closer depiction of how our thoughts actually moves.

If it is, the impact on how we teach, how we learn and how study for exams will be tremendous.

After all, our minds leap through associations, more than through logic. We search for knowledge the way we window shop. Often, we don’t know what to buy until we stumble on the item. In the same way, sometimes we don’t know what to think until the thought is inspired by some webpage we stumble upon while browsing.

More on this next month…

OOI KEE BENG

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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