Where’s Walden?: Searching, Googling, Reading, and Living in the Digital Age

Ethan Hawkley


Searching has a history. In this paper I analyze that history by dividing search into two methods: indexing and reading.

Most discussions of search history are limited to search engines. Analyzed in indexing terms, however, the history of informational search reaches back to the proliferation of print, and beyond. By placing search engines into indexing history, I seek to understand how this new technology (like other information technologies before it) mirrors, and is changing, the human brain. Additionally, I look at the problem of too much information by discussing the solutions proposed by three indexing visionaries (Henry B. Wheatley, Vannevar Bush, and John Battelle) alongside recent studies about digital search habits.

The second half of the paper describes reading as a means of searching for meaning through critical thought. As with indexing, I explore the origins of reading to show the complexity of the human brain, and how reading fluency can shape the brain. I also juxtapose descriptions of reading (offered from the humanities, hard sciences, and social sciences) beside current reading studies performed by the National Endowment for the Arts.

By unifying the histories of indexing and reading, I argue that prominent search methods influence the value that we give to different types of knowledge and shape the way that we think. I suggest that modern searchers must become fluent in both reading and digital search in order to locate relevant information and be able to critically evaluate that information.


history of indexing, history of reading, information studies, online searching, Google, literacy, reading

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