The gateways to heaven are many

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
22 August, 2017
Editorial: 125
Fecha de publicación original: 23 junio, 1998

A hungry person ponders more than a hundred learned men

Like a subtle, but unstoppable, landslide the emphasis on the Net has been shifting back to the point of departure: how you get into the Internet and what for. All of a sudden, search engines are starting to play such an important leading role that, for many, they are the magnifying glass into cyberspace allowing us to discern its fundamental tendencies. There can be no doubt on this matter: if the number of visitors is the principal indication of activity in the Net, there is nobody that can compete with the best search engines. However, not even when Walt Disney has launched itself onto these high seas, should we lose sight of something fundamental: search engines, while apparently playing the role of giving birth to the information flow, in reality, are a product of that flow. Search engines, whether generic or specific, textual or audiovisual, put the internaut onto a path which is, to a large extent, previously shaped by the organisation of data on the part of the search engine. From this point on, it is the activity of internauts that adds the critical element of understanding that data and turning it into significant information.

Over the last year, the basic features of search engines, whether the big names (Yahoo, Infoseek, Excite), or more specialised and local ones, have undergone a curious evolution, possibly as a reflection of what was happening among the internaut population itself. As this population grew, became more diverse and reached critical mass in different countries, cultures and languages, so search engines have begun to include more services, both as far as content and the languages it is expressed in, was concerned. Now we find ourselves in the situation where searching for information is sometimes of secondary importance compared to others offered at these gateways to the Net. This progressive change points to one of the most important questions about cyberspace, namely, the nature of digital information and how it behaves. The search engine masks these questions with a good sales pitch: its objective, apparently, is to find out who internauts are and how they behave.

The search engine, either as point of entrance or as the connecting thread that runs through all the activities of the internaut, inevitably highlights three crucial features of digital information: information is essentially an activity that results in a chain of multiple relations and, in the end, shapes a certain way of life. In other words, interactivity, the subtleties of its quality and continuity. For the moment there are only a few search engines oriented to covering this layer of the access to information. On the other hand, most of them are in fact clinging ferociously to the culture typical of service stations on the motorway – the more things on sale there, the longer travellers will stick around. I don’t think that this way of looking at things can last long. Shortly we will begin to see search engines which offer exactly the opposite, in other words a direct bridge to information centres and to contact with content authors. The better the quality of this bridge — the more specific, the greater the variety of access languages, the quicker they are and the closer they are to natural language for search definitions-the greater the possibility of success, despite the fact that their numbers might not reach the heights of general search engines for quite some time.

A case in point illustrating this tendency is the Electronic Library Programme (eLib, Great Britain), which has just opened up its seven “doors” to different areas including art, design, architecture, communications media, biomedicine, business, engineering, history, social science and conflict studies. The system is the product of three years’ work by specialists in the fields of education and research. Although it is strongly biased towards information of an academic nature contained in archives and libraries in Great Britain (an anachronistic bow to “encyclopaedism” and a way of proclaiming a predilection for pre-packed information), it is a model with a great wealth of tonalities which opens up qualified doors to cyberspace. And, at the same time, it raises the question of the limitations of treating information fundamentally as a product which has been previously stored in identifiable formats, and not as a “natural process” of the human mind.

Translation: Bridget King.