Scene: A rather expensively-dressed young fellow (Meno) wanders into a university library. He looks a bit baffled by it, and also seems anxious not to appear so– one gets the impression that he hasn’t been there before, and doesn’t know quite what to do, but would rather look cool than ask for help. Making a wild guess, he walks purposefully toward what turns out to be the reference desk, where Socrates, a reference librarian, is working at a computer terminal.
MENO: Excuse me, sir. I need some help.
SOCRATES: I find that hard to imagine! You seem so sure of yourself (and so nattily dressed, I must say) that I thought you knew your way around a library with no help at all. Aren’t you Professor Gorgias’ academic assistant?
MENO: [preening a bit] Yes, I do work for him. He’s quite brilliant, you know, and really very busy, so he sent me down here to look up some information for his latest project.
SOCRATES: Excellent! Well, what can I help you with, then? I’m not as brilliant as Prof. Gorgias, to be sure, but I’d be happy to assist you (and him) however I can.
MENO: That’s great! Well, then, I need to you give me all of the information available about virtue. Hurry up about it, if you please, because Prof. Gorgias needs this material by tomorrow morning.
SOCRATES: Hmmm. I’m not quite sure I get what you’re looking for. Do you mind answering a few questions, so that I can get a better idea of what we have here that might meet your needs?
MENO: Ask away! It seems pretty obvious to me, though. Everyone knows what virtue is, after all. Can’t you just plug the word into the catalog-thingie and print out everything that comes up for me? I mean, it’s a five minute job, tops, right? Can’t you just, like, Google it for me or something? That usually works for me when I’m doing a paper.
SOCRATES: [smiling] I wish it were that simple! Even with web-scale discovery, finding the right material in our collection to meet your needs takes a bit more work than that.
MENO: I fail to see why! I mean, come on now — we’re talking about virtue, man. Everyone knows what that is!
SOCRATES: Then why are you doing research on it?
MENO: …because Prof. Gorgias said to? Seriously, just search for it, and we’re done.
SOCRATES: [sighs heavily] Let me show you what I mean. Tell you what, we’ll even use Google. Let’s type “virtue” into the search box and see what happens.
MENO: [positions himself so he can see the screen on Socrates’ terminal] more than 90 million results! But that’s far too many! I don’t need all of them. I just need the best ones. Look — the first thing up there is a definition! That should be good! Pretty much all of the stuff at the top should be the best, right?
SOCRATES: How many definitions do you see there?
MENO: Um…at least 2, and one of them has a bunch of variations.
SOCRATES: Which one is Prof. Gorgias interested in?
MENO: [mumbles] I didn’t ask…
SOCRATES: That’s a problem, isn’t it? How are you going to tell which results in the search are the best, if you don’t know which information Prof. Gorgias actually wants?
MENO: Ummm…yeah. You’re right. That is a problem. I don’t actually know.
SOCRATES: Furthermore, what do you mean by the “best” results? How will you know which ones they are, so that you can choose those and not some others?
MENO: Well, the best results must be the first ones on the list, right?
SOCRATES: But Google’s search results aren’t really ranked that way — that is, the first results listed are typically for the most-visited, most-linked sites that meet certain criteria for relevance, regardless of whether or not their information is accurate, thorough, properly referenced, or anything like that. Sometimes, the stuff at the very top of the screen is there because someone paid for it to be there. Is that what you mean by “best,” or do you mean something else?
MENO: I don’t think so — Professor G. is a stickler for references and accuracy. So maybe what we need to do is just look to find the most frequently visited links that have accurate info and citations. Let’s do that!
SOCRATES: But Meno, you don’t even know which sense of “virtue” you’re searching for. How on earth are you going to decide which information about it is accurate, or which citations are appropriate?
MENO: [throws up hands, exasperated] Aaaaand we’re back to this…Look, pal, you’re making this a lot harder than it needs to be. It’s like we can’t get anywhere at all. Either we already know everything about it, so there’s no point in searching, or we can’t even start to search, because we’ve got no clue what we’re looking for. Seriously — why are you even here? Is it your job to drive me crazy?
SOCRATES: Now, now. It’s not as bad as all that. We’re actually making progress. Don’t you see how what you’re saying actually points us in the right direction?
MENO: I don’t see it. Mostly, you’re making me feel confused and slightly homicidal. Why don’t you just email me that first page of Google results and we’ll call it even? So maybe I don’t know what virtue is. So what? I’m sure Professor G. knows enough about this virtue stuff to figure which results are good and which aren’t, and no one goes past the first page of search results anyway.
SOCRATES: [sighs the sigh of infinite, long-suffering patience known to all customer service employees] Maybe you should go talk to Professor Gorgias and get a clearer idea of what he actually needs. Then come back, and we can try again.
[To Be Continued…]