Belmont Club

Finding needles in the haystack

In the days before search engines you had to know where to look for information on the battle for Iwo Jima on the Internet. It was a time consuming, difficult and time-consuming process. Today you can simply type in a search string “detachment” (the Iwo Jima operation was codenamed “detachment) and get 5,820,000 results. For a person who knows nothing else about that historic battle, having 5,820,000 results is arguably as bad as having none at all. Whereas the problem before the Internet was having too little, the problem on the World Wide Web today is that there is often too much.

In both cases the novice has no straighforward answer to the question: where do I look? But assume that he finds it. A second problem soon presents itself. He forgets where it was. In the numerous and criss-crossing pathways of cyberspace it is easy to mislay a useful piece of information. Worse still is when you find a first piece of information and some weeks later come across the second piece, and belatedly recognizing that you have both ends of the puzzle proceed to look for the first piece. So you type “detachment” — and come up with 5,820,000 results. It is said that those who the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. That’s not quite true. Those who they wish to destroy they first let find something on the Internet. And then when they need to find it again, they give them Google.

Most browsers have a “bookmark” button and a “history” facility, both of which help the hapless user keep some kind of course in cyberspace. Then Murphy perversely takes a hand. You bookmark something on your home computer only to find you need it at your work computer or vice versa. The general rule when using browser based bookmarks is that when you bookmark something, you will always need to find it when you are on another computer. What about using the history faciltiy. Here too Murphy has a franchise: you confidently look up your browsing history to get your backbearings only to discover that you have been to 3,768 separate sites in the last 3 months, each with cryptic names. Your heart sinks as you look through each of them. Murphy wins again.

Two tools which may prove of limited use to overcoming the problem of marking out your knowledge domains are Diigo and Zotero. Both are powerful research tools which allow you to systematically bookmark and classify sites on the Internet and without being tied to a single computer. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. I think Diigo is a tremendous technology platform with a horrible user interface, while Zotero is something which is struggling to escape from the academic environment. Neither is perfect. But they’re better than nothing.

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