Empty Calories

A couple of days ago I made reference to a KQED Forum show on the 40th anniversary of the Personal Computer.  In listening closer to that program, a couple of the guests made comments about the “empty calories” applications and devices that we in the computer field like to create.  The following is a transcript from that dialogue:

Michael Krasny: Just something that came up…Brian Cooley mentioned…and that is how a lot of the calories are going into things like Twitter and Flickr now.

Brian Cooley: Yeah, we’re spending the effort — you know we talked about the vision Doug had for this being a platform for greater collaborative reasoning and problem solving. We are using the connectivity and…the power of the PC in enormous ways of (quote) “thinking” and communicating. But they’re much more self-obsessed. We’re spending so much time on social networking and all kinds of relatively unimportant stuff like YouTube videos and Yelp restaurant reviews. There is an enormous bulk of calories being spent on this kind of problem solving of a very tiny, irrelevant nature.

MK: This isn’t exactly extending outward toward humanity

BC: Not exactly, no.

MK: What do you think, Paul Saffo?

Paul Saffo: This is a media revolution. It’s not longer an information revolution. We’ve been through media revolutions before and this is what we always do. I mean, go back to 1452. What did we do after we printed the Bible? Cheap thrillers, how-to books, and pornography.  So you can view the early stages of this — the silly self-absorption stuff — it’s a little like teenage acne for the media revolution.  You gotta pass through it.  Hopefully, we’ll pass through it soon.

I hope so, too, Paul.  Because we are indeed in a media revolution, and search continues to be at the heart of it.  An information retrieval system — a search engine — is media.  And companies that provide search are media companies, because while the internet at its heart is about information, the distribution of that information is what turns it into media.  

So the question is: When are we going to get out of the “teenage acne” stage of web search?  When are we going to start building systems that get beyond self-obsession, cheap thrills, and (relatively unimportant) easy, simple answers, into systems that help us solve tougher problems and ask deeper questions?  When are search engines going to extend outward toward humanity, instead of just helping us find the home page for Bed, Bath and Beyond, or the population of the state of Vermont?

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