Jonas Söderström, Swedish information architect and pioneer blogger, has a brilliant illustration of the value of information about people’s information seeking behavior: In a complex information seeking situation in the subway in Milan, he finds the way from the central station to Cadorna (where Leonardo’s The Last Supper is.) He does this by observing the smudge pattern left behind by hundreds of people putting their finger on the map and tracing out the route:
If anything illustrates the value of what Google and other search engines do, this is it: A gigantic Delphi analysis where we all know a little, and together know a lot.
There is, of course, the implied danger captured in the phrase "ten thousand lemmings can’t go wrong," but a system with feedback (i.e., repeated searches and some learning) the danger of that should be small. Most of Wikipedia’s errors eventually get corrected, and the algoritms of search engines improve daily. The fact that we all leave electronic traces may be worrying from a privacy viewpoint, but the upside is a unique opportunity of turning searching and finding into unwitting and implied teaching.
We learn as we search, but now we can teach as we search.