Commentary

Becoming A Master Of Search

First of all, happy new year!

For the past week, I've been hanging out by a lake with a group of friends. The pile of us booked out a small compound with three cabins and, despite having access to the Internet, I've managed to use my drug of choice only sporadically, checking email every other day and putting up a short post or two. On the whole, I'm going through withdrawal -- and it's not all bad.

Our activities have been governed by chance, choice, weather and old-fashioned yellow pages investigation. Instead of flickering screens, my vision has been filled with mountainous scenery and the faces of loved ones. My fingers have begun to uncurl from their normal ten-finger-typing pose.

Even situations that would normally provoke a flurry of Google activity have remained remarkably free of Web access. We spent many an evening playing "Who am I?," a game in which you have to guess famous characters -- supplied by others at the -- by asking a series of yes/no questions. As it turns out, if you are the supplier of one of the famous characters, it helps to actually know the answers to the yes/no questions: Did Yul Brynner play in Westerns? Did Cary Grant win an Oscar?

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This type of stuff is classic search fodder. Why wonder when you can obtain an answer in seconds from your favorite interface? Yet we resisted the call of the computer and substituted confidence for accuracy, making the game vastly more difficult, yet immensely more entertaining.

We took a trip to the climbing gym in town, a place we found by (gasp!) asking someone where it was. We went boating and biking and fishing, and the only thing we searched for was sunblock, buried somewhere at the bottom of the bag.

Lest you think that I've found religion in the form of search abstinence and am swearing off the Interweb altogether, I must point out the ways in which search enhanced this trip: the compound was booked online; our kayaks were purchased on New Zealand's equivalent of eBay; plane tickets and caterers and child-minders were all sourced with Google's help.

I can definitively say that search made preparing for the trip easier, faster, and just plain better. Once we were here, though, I cannot overstate the sensation of indulgence that came from walking away from bits and bytes and into the world of atoms.

Search, and the Internet in general, were kept in their proper place, tools designed to make our lives better and enhance our ability to do what we want. They were slaves to us, not the other way around. In the eternal and magnificent "Alice in Wonderland," the eponymous main character debates with Humpty Dumpty:

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.

"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make a word mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be -- that's all."

This holiday was an opportunity to remember that we are all masters of search, and that if we want "glory" to mean "a nice knock-down argument," or if we choose to ignore that Yul Brynner in fact starred in "The Magnificent Seven," we can do so.

May search serve you well in 2008.

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