Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Google problem

In order to get what we want, we do of course need to know what it is that we want. To muddle through does not seem to be an option — as a concept, that is. Nowadays, we need business plans, exposés, and dispositions. And, we need to be able to ask the right questions — otherwise Google can't really be of help. A bit of a vicious circle, isn't it? To be able to ask the right questions I need to know what I want yet if I don't know what I want I won't know what and how to ask.

Needless to say, to know what one wants is often helpful. As long as one is looking for the familiar, that is. And, there is of course no doubt that Google is a great research tool. One however shouldn't forget that it is based on data that are toneless, bloodless, and do not smell.

In real life — the one that can't be as planned, managed and controlled as quite some would wish — to know what one wants not only often overlooks what one needs, it also guarantees that one will most certainly miss all the things by the side of the road. Moreover, in real life we often simply do not know what we want — and that is of course a blessing: just think of all the things you wanted, and got, and that were not good for you.

One of the modern manifestations of our wants is the business plan — or, for the more literally minded, the exposé. Such a plan often represents nothing but what we nowadays call a vision — not so long ago, people who suffered from visions were put into psychiatric care — based on which banks grant loans and editors commission articles. I find this baffling. I mean a plan is nothing but a plan — even if you call it "realistic" — and more often than not just plain wishful thinking.

And, then there's the thing with "the right" and "the wrong" questions — "the right questions" are the ones we have answers for. It is worth noting however that when we say "this is a good question" we usually mean that we have no answer (or too many) for it. Yet in our efficiency-minded times, where the validity of a project depends on whether it is doable, questions such as "Where do we come from? What do we do here? Where do we go from here?" are considered interesting but — for the majority of us — impractical for we can't really answer them. Since this is difficult to accept, we make up reference points and thus create a world in which we are a bit less lost. As Sharon Cameron writes in Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain: "It is possible to think this: without a reference point there is meaninglessness. But I wish you'd understand that without a reference point you are in the real."

Our modern obsessions demand that we should know what we want and then stay focussed on our goals. Probably not as much as George Bush, Jr though — a man famous for knowing without asking questions — whom Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner complimented for being "steady"? "Events can change," Colbert said, but "this man's beliefs never will. He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday. No matter what happened Tuesday." In other words, to know what one wants and to pursue — or, in the case of Mister Bush, have others pursue — that goal vigourosly often leads to disasters. As the wise joke goes: Do you know how to give God a good laugh? Just tell Him what your plans are.

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