Best Of The Web
“IF YOU HAD visited the Cambridge University Library in the late 1990s, you might have observed a skinny young man, his face illuminated by the glow of a laptop screen, camping out in the stacks. William Tunstall-Pedoe had wrapped up his studies in computer science several years earlier, but he still relished the musty aroma of old paper, the feeling of books pressing in from every side. The library received a copy of nearly everything published in the United Kingdom, and the sheer volume of information—5 million books and 1.2 million periodicals—inspired him.
IT WAS AROUND this time, of course, that another vast repository of knowledge—the internet—was taking shape. Google, with its famous mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” was proudly stepping into its role as librarian to the planet. But as much as Tunstall-Pedoe adored lingering in the stacks, he felt that computers shouldn’t require people to laboriously track down information the way that libraries did. Yes, there was great pleasure to be had in browsing through search results, stumbling upon new sources, and discovering adjacent facts. But what most users really wanted was answers, not the thrill of a hunt.
As tools for achieving this end, search engines were almost as cumbersome as their book-stuffed predecessors. First, you had to think of just the right keywords. From the long list of links that Google or Yahoo produced, you had to guess which one was best. Then you had to click on it, go to a web page, and hope that it contained the information you sought. Tunstall-Pedoe thought the technology should work more like the ship’s computer on Star Trek: Ask a question in everyday language, get an “instant, perfect answer.” Search engines as helpful librarians, he believed, must eventually yield to AIs as omniscient oracles.”
JJ Editor's Picks
"Congratulations, Mr. President. It took an extraordinary effort, but you finally managed to spark a serious global crisis. I know you don’t like to share credit, but don’t worry. The current mess in the Middle East centered around Iran is all..."
"We’re approaching the anniversary of one of the nastiest political battles it has been my misfortune to witness—the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault and his..."
"There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create..."
"He walked through the coffee shop door and scanned the crowd. A familiar smile bloomed as he recognized me, despite how my appearance had changed over the years. I’m bald and bearded now, and heavier. I wear an extra decade on my face, and I’m..."
"The poverty rate in the United States fell to 11.8 percent in 2018, according to data released last week by the Census Bureau — the lowest it’s been since 2001. But this estimate significantly understates the extent of economic deprivation in..."
"Streaming is the future of TV. But for now a big part of the streaming business revolves around old TV shows. Latest case in point: Netflix is paying a lot of money for the rights to show Seinfeld to its 150 million subscribers around the world..."
"On the eve of the second Israeli election of 2019, there is no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric about the potential consequences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election. From the New York Times' editorial column to The Forward’s..."
"Is there a backlash toward the technology industry in the culture? I tend to think so, having written about its various twists and turns most weekdays for the past couple years now. But sometimes an obsession with a beat can lead to myopia, and..."