Going online in February 1997, the Internet was a much more exciting place. A dial-up connection meant that one could use the telephone and the connection speed was so slow that the arrival of email could entirely halt one’s opportunities to surf the web, not that there nearly as much much of the web to surf. The search engines were Lycos and AltaVista and Yahoo, and the links were a tiny fraction of those now available. (Nevertheless, it was possible to plan and book a 1998 visit to British Columbia entirely online).
Having search engines that were considerably more limited in their capacities sometimes meant that unexpected sites were suggested (and sometimes suggestions were for sites we did not want to visit), yet there seemed a sense of genuinely browsing the web as one would browse the shelves of a bookshop. There would be serendipitous moments when one discovered something new, or unusual, or thought-provoking, even though one had not been seeking such a discovery.
Google may be significantly more efficient than its predecessors, but has eliminated the possibility of the serendipitous. Its algorithms ensure that particular sites appear on the front page (and its profit-seeking ensures those who pay the most feature most prominently), but its acquisition of a position of dominance has been as much a matter of choice made by internet users as an outcome of its aggressive promotion of itself.
We chose Google because it was fast and precise, we wanted exactly what we sought. Like a customer who goes to a bookshop and goes to the counter and asks for the book they want and nothing else, so we preferred a search engine that took us to the pages we wanted and no other. It seemed serendipity was something that we did not want, random chance was something we wished to avoid. Rather than a web, we seemed to prefer a single strand. Just as broadcasting has become narrowcasting as the proliferation in the number of radio stations has meant we listen only to the programmes we like, so the massive capacity of Google means we choose only the websites we like.
Serendipity might seem a quaint concept, who, now, would wish to allow events to proceed on the basis of chance in the hope of a happy outcome? But serendipity could be something civilising, something democratic. Serendipity meant we might discover something entirely new, something that might make us think in a different way. Serendipitous discoveries challenged our assumptions about the nature of the world and about the organisation of our society, they made us think about our views and allowed our thoughts to develop; serendipity had the capacity to make us better people, better citizens.
Google eliminates the possibility of us making chance discoveries for ourselves, not because it is consciously engineered to make us less civilised or less democratic (though dissenting voices rarely feature prominently), but because it is so efficient in its workings. It takes a direct route to what we seek, not taking any turnings on the way. We have answers to the precise questions we ask, but not questions to ask us about our questions.
The web didn’t have to turn out this way. In the days of 4.5kb connections and squeaky modems, it seemed it might have been something much more exciting.