Free Recall

Search engines tell us everything except how they work

Of Clocks and Ticks

It’s easy to overlook ticks. But these blood-sucking vermin that purvey Lyme disease and force anxious full-body inspections after summer walks have proved surprisingly useful for philosophers concerned with how we know time and space. In his 1934 essay “A Stroll Through Worlds of Animals and Men,” naturalist Jakob von Uexküll uses the tick to illustrate his concept of the Umwelt, the environment that shapes in specific ways the possibility of experience and knowledge for every individual organism. For the tick, the warmth of blood and the scent of mammal skin arouses it from dormancy; it can wait for up to 18 years to be provoked by these sensations. The willingness to wait must shape its experience of how time unfolds in the world.

Von Uexküll thought that humans’ interaction with their environment also shaped how they know time: “Time, which frames all happening, seems to us to be the only objectively stable thing in contrast to the colorful change of its contents, and now we see that the subject sways the time of his own world.” By altering the speed at which we come to know things, we alter our experience of the speed of life.

In the 11th century, few would have understood the world in terms of standardized hours and seconds. According to historians of information and technology David Landes and Derek de Solla Price, the people of that age became suspicious of the tower bells that rang in accordance to clock time. Today, many are equally suspicious of the speed of digital information and how it seems to set the metronome for contemporary life. Search engines, now a central component of the human Umwelt, are part of this new temporality. Search engines make information appear infinitely accessible, seeming to connect us immediately to what would have once taken lifetimes to find. They make the expansive world of information feel omnipresent and instantaneous. But this dream of infinite information runs into limits to how we understand the world.

Clocks of the Internet

More information may be readily available, but our capacity for transforming it into knowledge has stayed the same. We multitask more even as we retain less, as studies from Clifford Nask at Stanford University and the 2015 Pew Project for Internet and American Life, among others, have suggested. We are lulled into believing we don’t need to remember things — that we can always Google them later and the answers will be immediately forthcoming.

Search engines lead us to believe they are neutral tools that simply offer access to objectively valid and reliable information, provided users develop the correct sorts of queries. But in fact, the means of unearthing the information changes its nature. How we find something out changes what we want to know, and how we use what we learn. It’s not merely that, in the course of life, we develop a need for some specific piece of information and then use a search engine to research it. Rather, our experience of search engines makes us see the world in terms of what is Googleable. It makes us crave information we know will be readily accessible. The experience of an immediate answer becomes as important as the content of the information itself.

Our experience of search engines makes us see the world in terms of what is Googleable. The question is the answer

Finding information once meant time-consuming, site-specific investigations into documents of various media; the time and work of the research process would turn the pursuit of information into a contextualized acquisition of knowledge. Now finding information is simply a matter of typing words into a search tool. The process feels instant, and it can be done over and over again from anywhere. The question is the answer.

This fast and continually easy access to information creates a sense of time flattened into space. Scholars Iina Hellsten, Loet Leydesdorff, and Paul Wouters have considered the way search engines update their indexes at different frequencies: “As clocks of the internet, search engines realize the present as a collection of extended presents that can exist in parallel on the Web,” they write. “In other words, time is being represented as realities that co-exist in space.” Search engines index recently created documents and older documents together as part of a continual present. The layers of information developed over time and within different contexts appear as though they are convened at the whim of the user. Everything happens at once, and can be done again if necessary.


Search engines are engineered to flatten all previous information into one time scheme, regardless of its original context. When Google is asked something, it returns old and new information together as if their different time frames have no particular bearing on their relevance, and with no indication of how the older material may have shaped the newer.

Though search engines are meant to ease our information access, their temporal flattening of knowledge is also disorienting, presenting a chaos of information instead of a sense of how ideas have been grounded over time. The feeling that all knowledge across all times is readily available inevitably comes with a feeling of information overload. By giving it all at once, search engines deprive us of a sense of having the time to process it all. Most users click on the first result.

For Bernard Stiegler, following Heidegger and Derrida, understanding how events interrelate in succession allows for the possibility that knowledge be developed, communicated, and acted upon. The duration of information over time matters, but today’s communication technologies overcome the sense of epistemic distance by presenting information quickly — and therefore present information itself as quick. Search engines redouble this illusion of immediacy, which changes the human Umwelt. With respect to the speed of information, we begin to experience elisions between how we are expected to perform and what feels natural.

To adapt to the staggering and ever increasing amount of information we interact with daily, we make ourselves available to answer texts and emails not just at the office but also on the commute or at home. We sleep with information, phones rested on pillows. We multitask and do our best to assimilate information into knowledge as best we can. In many cases, this means simply letting the information live in technology to be accessed if and when we need it. We remember that we used to remember phone numbers. We remember that we used to remember the capital of Nova Scotia without Googling it. The memory of memory is enough.

Convenience as Accuracy

Similar to those in the late middle ages who became suspicious of the ringing of tower bells, many now feel that fast information is restructuring their lives in ways they don’t fully understand and can’t control or readily resist.

How do search engines win users’ trust? With speed. Search engine studies from Jerry Brutlag and others at Google and Bing have determined that people report higher satisfaction and longer sustained use if the search results are provided quickly, even if those results are not as suited to the users’ informational needs. So search engines can overcome suspicion by making ubiquitous, omnipresent information seem easily accessible: As long as the information is convenient, we might worry less about questioning it, interrogating its relevance and reliability, or even retaining it for future recall.

How do search engines win users’ trust? With speed

Search engines’ apparent immediacy helps allow them to appear primarily governed by efficiency and user-friendliness, obfuscating the economic, political, and cultural assumptions (not to mention the proprietary search and personalization algorithms) from which they infer the relevance of potential results. The speed with which search engines return results seems to suggest objectivity, but it also obfuscates the compromises they make to ensure smooth and “instantaneous” function. Google lets us feel as though we know everything — except how Google works. We can seemingly search for anything and get an answer, but we remain ignorant to how our omnipotence actually works.

The feeling of nowness is equated the feeling of accuracy, more salient to users than developing hands-on experience of thinking with empirical information, using it to make knowledge. Our desire for nowness becomes self-fulfilling, we adapt to it and feel comforted by its convenience and eschew the effort of working to obtain knowledge.

The Nostalgia for Memory

Technology seems to provide the answer to feeling constantly behind. But its very design is the cause of these feelings. Networked computation — the technology that powers search engines — can sort, quantify, and organize information at speeds much faster than the onflow of human time. For computers, time simply structures knowledge. For humans, time is something we live in. It is where we become ourselves.

It is hard to imagine a way of reversing search engine temporality, or a way of developing a search engine that encourages deliberate knowledge production rather than “user engagement.” A return to pre-Google methods of having human gatekeepers vet and organize information in search engines seems impracticable, an unimaginable return to darkness. Much less of the internet would be indexed. Having to feel around blindly for information in hopes that it has been categorized somewhere by institutional experts seems like a less than desirable solution, even if it would force one to frame their informational needs more carefully.

Search engines want us to think that we will always be able to access the same information and it will always be true, available, and up to date: always Googleable. This masks and reduces the multiple presents the we all exist in, across a number of platforms, to a homogeneous “real time.” Meanwhile, these multiple presents remain as ungraspable as ever.

Britt S. Paris is working on her PhD in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. Her research interests include information and communication technology aesthetics, critical data studies, history and philosophy of technology and information ethics. Her work has been published in Big Data & Society, Discourse and Society, Triple Canopy, and InterActions.