Why Can’t I Argue with Google (or Malcolm Gladwell)?

First published February 3, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week I was in San Francisco for Big Think’s Farsight 2011: Beyond the Search Box. I took copious notes but there was one comment in particular I found intriguing. Luc Barthelet, from Wolfram|Alpha said that the company’s goal is not just to provide an answer, but show the route taken to arrive at the answer. Then we’re free to question the validity of the answer. “I want to argue with a search engine. I want to be able to challenge its logic.”

This was the first time I had ever heard this, but it immediately struck a chord. Why can’t we argue with Google? Why do we just accept its answers? How do we know they’re right? Of course, Google doesn’t really create an answer, it connect us with answers. But more and more, Google is disintermediating the source of the answer. For many searches, we never go beyond the search results page. We accept the answer as presented by Google, without ever questioning the rationale behind the answer.

Why is arguing important? What could we gain from arguing with Google? Let me give you one example of why it’s good to argue.

There is no problem…

The Summit featured recorded video clips from famed pundits, including Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell told us that the purpose of the Summit — to ponder how we might reinvent search — was misguided. “Can we build a better Google or Bing? Yeah, sure we can. But it solves a problem that’s not really a problem.” In Gladwell’s view, we already have access to all the information we need.

I diasagree vehemently with Gladwell. This same logic could be applied to any avenue of human endeavor and would stop all progress and innovation in its tracks. Could a horse and covered wagon transport us across the country? Yeah, sure it could. But I’d rather take a plane, thank you. And someday I hope there’s an even faster way. Gladwell’s off-the-cuff comment shocked the audience. How could he provide an answer so obviously lacking in informed context? The structure of his argument had holes so big we could have poked the Golden Gate Bridge through them.

Say What, Malcolm?

If Gladwell believes that a valid answer to every question is Wikipedia, perhaps his argument holds water. But he is ignoring the fundamental precepts of information foraging and retrieval. We need to surface the best information by taking the shortest possible path to it. Everyone who knows anything about search agrees with that, and we also agree that we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.

But going beyond this, there’s the broader question: Is the current use case of search the one we need going forward? Right now, search is about the retrieval of relevant information. Let’s leave aside the question about whether it’s successful at doing that. But is simple retrieval of information (often false information) enough anymore? As Esther Dyson pointed out, perhaps “search” isn’t even the verb we should be using now. Is “solving” or “fulfilling” a better description of what we need? Dyson remarked, “We use the Ito connect to and affect the world around us.” And if that’s the use case, search falls far short of our expectations.

But I couldn’t argue with Gladwell, because he wasn’t in the room and I couldn’t uncover the rationale behind his pithy answer. He was a bit like Google; he dropped his wisdom from on high and was gone.

The Importance of Arguing

We argue because it knocks down intellectual straw men. It allows us to test and prod the logic that lies behind opinions. It challenges beliefs, which tend to keep us barricaded from the rest of world. If those beliefs are deeply held, they may be difficult (or impossible) to dislodge, but if they’re never questioned, minds will never change — and we’ll all barrel down those pre-laid tracks to a much too predictable future.

I agree with Barthelet. We should be able to argue with online information. We should be able to see the path taken to answers. We should be able to challenge sources. It’s more appropriate in some instances than others, and it’s an option we may not take advantage of very often, but it should be open to us.

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