Lost and Found in the Digital Realm
A major effort has been taking place on planet Earth to ensure that the human race doesn’t get lost. This effort was aimed at the developed world but is also increasingly turning its attention to developing countries as well. This effort has centred around the word “search”. Search, still largely in the hands of one corporation that has become so powerful and dominant that it has even replaced the word “search” with its own name for the majority of people”, is all about ending the state of being lost. Whether we “search” for or “google” something, the line we are on is one which begins with “not found” and ends with “found”.
We search for a film, a holiday, a person, a news story, a way to do something, an address, and we even search for ourselves.
Two things happen here. Our starting point of “not found” may not be a starting point of “lost”. It might be a starting point of simple curiosity. Or we may know where we are but are seeking a destination. I have watched the first three movies and I want to find out if there is a fourth in the pipeline. I know where were want to travel to for our holiday and I am looking for the best value and quality hotel choices. Where our questions are focused on finding something – an object of information, we don’t necessarily experience being lost. In a different case, our starting point may well be lost. I have no idea where to eat in this city. All of the restaurants look the same and I am “lost” in terms of knowing my way around this city to find a decent eaterie. Or I am in my car and am genuinely lost and I search for a map, real time if possible. Whether I search via a search box or through the help of a program or app, the digital product aims to help me come out of the state of being lost.
My measurement of the efficacy of the digital project is whether it helps me find what I am looking for (quickly and accurately) or whether it helps me experience myself as being less lost.
In both cases, the intention is to find something.
Beyond Lost to the Bliss of Confusion
The Digital World is pretty good at helping with both of these scenarios and is getting better all the time. But it isn’t perfect. Often I may begin in a state of not feeling lost, I look for something using a “search tool” and I end up feeling lost when the tool creates more confusion than clarity. A page of search results can achieve that. I look for Paul levy and find fifteen Paul Levys that aren’t the Paul levy I am looking for. I access a map via an app and it zooms in on my position in a way that simply confuses me. I take the wrong turning. I access some research and it is in a format that makes it impossible to search by keyword further (such as a PDF file or a scanned in document). Users in the digital realm often find themselves in a lost state when they weren’t in a lost state when they started.
I would even suggest we are lost more often than we realise and that we waste time in fake productive activity which is more about finding our way out of the maze that the digital world itself has put us into. This can also happen when we wade through emails, or click on Hyperlinks that are basically mazes in themselves. In businesses, many intranet managers report that the majority of users ignore links and just use the search box “on the top right of the screen”. In many cases this search helps them but in many cases they end up lost.
Now you might think this article is about the problem of being lost. There are many people who have written about “search” and “navigation” and how to make it better.
Death by Tagging
What I am going to focus on is the value of being lost. When we seek information or knowledge with a clear intention, not finding that information can be frustrating, even dangerous. it can certainly be time consuming and costly. The cost of 100 employees’ time in failing to find what they are looking for is rarely measured well yet that cost can be far greater than the benefit the tools claim to helping them find stuff. Most search engines, even Google, are clunky and break down when our searches become subtle and complex. They hurl results at us, usually in pages of more or less good guesses and gambles.
In the background is better or worse “tagging” of data or attempts at artificially intelligent algorithms that are better at finding names and products than at helping us answer open questions.
And I am really glad about that.
Why? because asking open questions is all about creativity, exploration, and adventure. Our curiosity is the very thing that enriches who we are. Not knowing the answer can cause us to ponder, think, reflect, and creatively explore options and possibilities. In problem solving theory, there is a healthy state of opening up a problem through a range of creative approaches – from imagination to brainstorming, from art to experiment. Allowing ourselves to be lost, to not seek to too quickly “tag” our thoughts stimulates the kind of thinking that leads to invention and innovation – even to originality! With closed questions, search needs to “close down” to the results we seek. We don’t want to get answers we aren’t looking for unless they reduce our confusion or help us to be “unlost”. But with open questions, search can be like a curse, like an imp on our shoulder, whispering cliches and answers that distract or confuse us in unhelpful ways. Too much information becomes unwanted noise.
When we are lost it can be vital to be silent, to find calm, just to ponder gently or notice. Search results are like so much vomit all over our screen. I’d love to see a search engine that can be switched into “opening up” mode where the results are presented to inspire us, to fire up our thinking and stimulate our creativity. This is where social networks such as Reddit or Stumbleupon can be helpful, but for many they are too random, too sales-y and can simply divert rather than truly help us be creatively lost.
Creative, proactive lostness, as a tool for invention, innovation and the addressing of really “wicked” problems is enhanced in the digital realm when:
– we are offered different points of view
– when we end up asking new and more exciting questions
– when we find our assumptions questioned
– when we find connections to people we really need to connect with rather than who we thought we ought to connect with
– when we get a sudden “knowledge download” from a new source or field
– when we find our thinking or practice disrupted – when we are surprised
– when we end up even more lost but are glad of it
– when discover new ways of searching or addressing our problem or question
Lost? There’s an App for that
Now, how many apps or search engines are there for that? Imagine an app that would help you get lost in a new city but would keep you safe as well. Imagine an app that would help you research a subject, not by offering answers and content but would gather in all the questions that others are asking on the same issue? Imagine a search engine that offered you seemingly unrelated content that might just inspire you? Imagine an app where you put in tour tentative answers and what you got back were the questions you really should be asking, or the paths of enquiry you really should be following?
Too often now, people are in very linear and functional relationships with their digital devices and platforms. We ask questions on social media and get a stream of answers, be it in a search for information or a bit of fun on Facebook. We offer, they respond. We search for stuff and get offered answers. We search more when the first page throws us rubbish. We do it all day and become groomed to this instant response – often short pithy “solutions”. We become trained in a kind of functional problem solving model of question-answer-action. And, the longer we spend in that mode, our real creativity, even a bit of our artistic madness, goes out of the window, perhaps never to return. When that happens, we either forget we had it in the first place, or we miss it and head back into the digital realm looking for creative apps and ever more stimulating content to fill the aching hole. Or some of us head off to art classes or to music festivals for a burst of that lost creativity.
At work, staring at screens doesn’t help us to find that “empty canvas” of allowing problems and questions just to work on us. Some companies have created space for silence. In all cases it currently involves turning your attention away from the digital realm, turning devices off, closing your eyes, going for a walk. There doesn’t seem to be an algorithm out there that wants us to seek more than find without adding to our confusion in ways that do not help us. Companies that measure their staff by how long they are at their desks and facing screens do so at their peril if they want those same employees to be creative, proactive and also motivated. You see, without times when we can just be open, confused and a bit lost – we lose our motivation. We dumb down and become wretchedly content (or not content in many cases). Pink Floyd called it “comfortably numb” and it manifest online as WILFIng where we endlessly search for an click on “anything” or “nothing in particular”. The Guardian newspaper recently called this the “new British pastime. Ironically. WILFing can be a good way to be confused and just “be” online. Yet often its a negative distraction. We do it because we have forgotten how to go for a walk in the sunshine.
But what if the digital realm isn’t only a place of search and finding answers, but in answering and finding searches? What is enquiry is as valuable to value-creation and innovation and a sense of purpose in life as advocacy and information-push?
This, I believe, is the next possible step for the digital realm – to serve our human creativity and originality – something the digital realm of ones and zeros currently lacks. The digital realm feels to me as if it is becoming an arrogant entity, a place of know-it-all-ism. It develops towards become a macrodatabase expanding out in the wake of the universe itself as it flows outwards. With that as a purpose, innovation seems to be focusing on “helping” us to never to be lost in life. To always be in a state of “found” or “unlost”. We may just win that battle and lose the war. It might just kill off an essential part of our creativity forever.
Paul Levy is the Author of Digital Inferno