Google and the Petrification of Knowledge

Internet | Lexicon
I had the oppurtunity this year to tutor a high school sophomore, a girl from the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Through the METCO program, she attends Lexington High School, 16 miles up Massachussetts Avenue into leafy subrubia. I hope I taught her a little bit about critical thinking and about creative problem solving. She taught me a thing about how the next half-generation does research. No library is necessary: it’s all on Google.

Of course, it’s not all on Google. There’s not a whole lot of web information on the spinning Jenny, which she needed for a history paper. But it was enough for her to to trouble with the library.

Writing about more contemporary topics, as I do, there’s less that escapes Google’s eyes. Nonetheless I still have great uses for my local library (which fortunately for me is a five-minute walk down Washington Street). I was interested in finding out the origins of headlined newspapers as we now know them. There was nothing on the web, spare for a few articles on Joseph Pulitzer. Even the biographies of Pulitzer at the library had few reproductions of newspaper front pages from the 19th century. So casually, I asked one of librarians, do you have any old newspapers? How old do you need? was the reply.

There were none of Pulitzer’s World, but there were some of his competitor, which was quite puny back then– the Times, years before the Ochs era began. I picked an atypical day in 1883– some bridge went up on May 25th that year– and made a copy of the front page. I had an impresisve feeling as I scanned it in at home. It was a separate feeling from that of doing research, coming up with insights, and writing analysis. I was playing a part in what I’ll call the petrification of knowledge. Petrification is the process by which organic materials, such as wood, are replaced by silica. I was issuing information from one medium to another, where it could be appreciated in its new structure.

The image of the Times page is not indexable into Google. But other things are, like an audio quote I transcribed from This American Life radio show on Sunday (see Bush Administration Fails Science, History, Logic). I felt it was important to be written down, and thus picked up by Google– to be petrified, as it were, into the searchable silicon world.

I think about this when I see how my articles are indexed, and found, on Google.

A few stories have become popular hits, for different reasons. My read on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal has gotten a couple of hundred hits in the last 3 weeks, many from international visitors. Part of the reason is that Google indexes the title of the piece without a space in the name, as the link suggests. My piece is #6 . Rounding out the top ten list is: a one-page site whining about the “liberal-controlled media” and offering an Abu Ghraib “fantasy camp”; some images which sit in file directories that do not have the space in the name; a post to the tactical media mailing list, which is a forward of a message from the corpwatch mailing list, forwarding the Taguba report; listed twice is a page at the conservative “Free Republic” website indexing stories on the topic. Also, an entry on MIT’s Blogdex explains that it lists the weblogs which reference the article; but there are none.

Another popular request piece I called Push Campaigns, which briefly contrasts the “pull” of social-networking with the “push” of phone and mail blasts. My piece is #2 for searches for on the RNC’s voter vault, besting articles in the Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and CBS News. Evidently many RNC volunteers are invited to access the database remotely, and perhaps they are looking for directions on how to do so.

I also get many variations on searches for cable pricing in my town. I’ve written several pieces about my mini-campaign for a la carte pricing, as I sensed there would be a growing movement to learn about it. I am still waiting for readers to cross over into the advocating stage. After all, Google hits are not a metric of success. ViewPoints are a bit better.

I can think of a few of reasons for my success in these areas. Partly it’s about picking new stories which are lightly covered. With a little effort, I became the online resource for cable in Brookline. There are a few other Brookline writers online, but few appear to write about local issues. I also on occasion will use words or phrases that have none to few references in Google. It’s all part of the petrification of knowledge— a phrase I have hereby coined.

More importantly, the software for this site, Drupal, is plenty friendly to Google. This I discussed last week over dinner with Moshe Weitzman, who is one of the lead U.S. contributors to the Drupal project. Unlike the run-on format favored by blogs, Drupal encourages each article to exist independently. Each article gets multiple links through the topics at right. Lastly, the URL name seems to help contribute to help google’s secret formula.

As popular as a Google search is, it doesn’t mean that’s what the person was looking for. Only about 8% of the people who searched for Abu Ghraib continue to read the website– low in comparison to the numbers that a quarter of those searchers for Voter Vault and half those searching for Brookline cable. The lesson is: don’t aim to be found; aim to be read.