In Praise of Inefficient Searching

When things really matter, we would be better off using less efficient searches. Being able to find a website that confirms you’re right in an internet argument is all well and good, but this is trivia. When knowledge is important, minor inconveniences come into their own and wind up giving us a broader perspective than we would when we result to our default methods.

I will start with an experience from university for illustration. My major was in economics, but philosophy was the first subject I developed a sustained interest in, and this led to a side interest in classics. The economics texts were shelved at the far end of the basement floor of the library, the greatest distance from the entrance possible. Even with a call number, finding an economics book meant going to another floor and then crossing that floor to get to the economics section. It was a far distance from the efficiency of a search engine and as a measure of distance (at least for a library).

During one such trip to the economics section, I wound up crossing the philosophy section and noticed The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith on the shelf. The Cambridge Companion series was helpful when reading philosophy on my own, but I wasn’t aware there was one for Adam Smith. That particular book contains a number of interesting essays, not least of which is one that presents Smith in the context of Stoicism and Epicureanism. It is not a work of economics, but it does sit at the intersection of the three interests identified above: economics, philosophy, and classics. It also turns out that if I’d have taken a right instead of a left, I’d have found the telltale red and green covers of the Loeb series, identifying the classics section.

People find books in libraries all the time, that’s what they’re there for. What makes the example useful as an illustration for inefficient searching is that the book in question was particularly well suited to my interests and I would have never known to look for it. Its discovery was an accident, and the story could have just as easily been how I first discovered Quintilian if I’d taken a right instead. My university’s library was very good and so I found a lot of books that way. In fact, a lot of the books I’ve enjoyed the most have been found that way.

The problem with efficient searching is that we don’t know what we’re looking for most of the time. We may have some inkling of what we’re looking for, but this can be different from what we need. Internet searches are excellent at providing confirmation, but are less effective at providing information than we think. The fault lies not in Google but in ourselves. Search engines cannot be blamed for people searching for “reasons why minimum wage doesn’t increase unemployment” or “arguments against minimum wage increase” instead of something like the FRED database.

Inefficient searching is not without cost. The hint is in the name. We value our time and so the ability to get an answer quickly tends to get priority over slow alternatives that might give a better answer. At my university library I’d have been perfectly happy to get my book faster and get on with my day. The cost would have been the loss of an interesting book seemingly tailored to my interests. Like most costs of this nature, we are not beset by soothsayers warning us of the consequences of the easy path, and so we remain ignorant of how much more we might have gained if only we’d incurred a minor inconvenience.

Like most costs we weigh them against the benefits. Not every inefficient search produces a pleasant surprise. A lot of the time we experience inefficient searches as exercises in frustration when we can’t find the thing we’re looking for. The reason I prefer the inefficient search is because I know the sum of inconveniences is small relative to the benefits from the times I am surprised.

Not every inefficiency is created equally.Wearing a blindfold in the library or changing the language setting on Bing to something you don’t understand will probably send you somewhere unexpected, but the chances of the discovery being useful are much smaller. One way to realize the benefits of inefficient searches is to increase the frequency of encounters with new things. How did I know the Loeb classics would have been on my right? I didn’t take the same path through the library each time I visited. This is one reason why visits to used bookstores can become so habit forming due to the higher turnover of what is on the shelves.

Another way to realize greater benefits from inefficient searches is to cultivate broad interests. This is a circular process since reading new things will broaden anyone’s horizons anyway, but being open to things that don’t directly line up with our prior interests can help the process along.

It is important to note that this is not simply a recasting of the tiresome analog vs. digital debate. Physical objects do have an advantage because they need to be stored somewhere, which means there is a process by which they are selected, as well as an ordering by some kind of curator, be it a chain bookstore or a library. Digital storefronts have a much wider selection, and browsing even inside a category will produce more results that can be reasonably compared. However, it is possible to read only physical books and never move beyond young adult fantasy novels (however good they may be). In contrast, reading Wikipedia and following the footnotes, especially when something doesn’t seem to add up, can produce the same kind of surprises that browsing a good library can. Josh Barro offers a better anecdote than I can:

A comparable digital case would be music services. We get the most out of a subscription when we try something new. Sure, you can listen to favourites, and the top recommendations are usually quite good, but sometimes you have to let your curiosity get the better of you and press play on the Turkish Jazz playlist. The point is more about the mindset rather than any particular example.

Of course, everyone recognizes that being open to new ideas is generally a good thing. Most people have settled on the matter as to whether or not they’re open to new things or if they prefer the comfort of the tried and tested. The reason I like to focus on inefficient searches is that it very easy for an otherwise open person to fall into a rut of the familiar in the name of convenience. It’s like having a regular coffee shop you go to in the morning and then buying some beans to make coffee at home. The beans always last longer than planned due to the number of cups bought because we’re in a rush. The point isn’t so much the inefficiency as it is as dislodging the efficient option as the default option and making its costs transparent.

Perhaps you’re not someone who’s settled on the matter of openness and would like to give these things a try. The examples above area good start. There’s more to life than just Googling it. Browsing the shelves of a local library or bookstore, editing Wikipedia, or even just pulling a book you bought but never read off the shelf is a fine start. You don’t need to abstain from efficient alternatives, just acknowledge them as choices. Choosing to have the chance to find something unexpected and wonderful feels a lot better than being forbidden from using a search engine. A positive framing is helpful due to the high failure rate of an individual search and the fact there isn’t a formula for finding exactly what you need. One day you start reading an article about accidentally finding a guide to Adam Smith, you look up the odd fact about a CIA director, learn his classmate grew up to become a pornographer, and then one day you wake up a renaissance man.

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