Technology and Its Discontents

Why you don’t know where anything is

Because they won’t let you find out, that’s why

Computer searching is so awesome now that you can’t find anything without it, even if you wanted to. Google has taught us that searching is the only way to find stuff, and now an entire generation of computer users searches for EVERYTHING and has no idea where it is, even after it is found.

Exhibit A: Every web browser on earth (except for Firefox, but it surely can’t hold out forever) has surreptitiously conflated the search box with the web address box so that even when you know the URL of a website (e.g., visitusontheweb.com), some search engine—probably Google—is going to search for it anyway. This is partially Big Brother-ism and partially because there is a new class of users too unskilled to realize what the two different boxes do. So now there is only one box. Problem solved.

Exhibit B: If you want to add a program to your Windows 10 Start menu (because, you know, you didn’t buy it from the Windows Store), you have to search for it first. Knowing where it is on the hard drive is of no value to you, because you can’t tell your computer that information. Instead you must search. In fact, search is so thoroughly ingrained into Windows 10 that you are almost powerless without it.

Exhibit C: When you do a Spotlight search on your Apple-brand computer, it will happily show you all the files that match, but it will not tell you where the fuck they are (actually, you can smush some modifier keys to get it to show you the location, but only super-geniuses know that). Likewise, in its default config, if you open a Finder window, you will see “All My Files” which is almost exactly as useful as seeing “None of My Files.” The Old Way was to show you your home folder with its content-specific folders: Documents, Pictures, Movies. And only a very dim intellect would fail to guess what was in those folders. But now we must be content with ALL our files, arbitrarily sorted and unorganized. Because you’re just going to search for them anyhow. (Again, you can configure your Mac to the Old Way, but new users don’t know that. They think this is normal.)

Now you may be saying to yourself, why would I care where my Word files are as long as I can find and open them? What difference does it make if Google searches for my web addresses instead of directly connecting me to them? OK, I will tell you. Without a vantage point from which to survey the landscape, you don’t know where you are. And if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where anything else is. And if you don’t know where anything else is, you’re lost. And you should never be lost when you are using your computer, which is supposed to be helping you be more organized and effective. But now being lost is the standard state from which, very much by design, the only exit is searching our way out.

And what if search can’t find what we want? (Because sometimes it can’t.) Then you are helpless. That’s bad design.