Google is the modern Syntopicon

Google search is the most important tool in my life. I cannot imagine living a life without it. So I wonder what tool people were using when there was no Internet, no Google?

An important tool is the Syntopicon. Defined in How to Read a Book, a Syntopicon is "a reference book that tells you where to go to find the relevant passages on a large number of subjects of interest, without at the same time saying how the passages should be read—without prejudging their meaning or significance."

Sounds like Google, right? Behind Google, there is an index (a reference book) that tells us where to find the relevant pages.

On the other side, Google is not fully a Syntopicon. With the "Page Rank" algorithm sorting the search results, Google is prejudiced. But it's exactly this prejudice, hidden behind an easy-to-use user interface, that made Google more successful than a Syntopicon.

Let's remember that How to Read a Book was written in 1940, and the information world has changed a lot in the past ~80 years. We have too many books and too much information for one to read now. Tons of information leads to two problems:

  1. A reference book (e.g. A Syntopicon) cannot index all the interesting topics. Even if a book can do that, reading this book would be time-consuming. So the modern Syntopicon must be easy to use. A search bar might be the simplest form a Syntopicon can take.
  2. A subject of interest can contain almost infinite sources of books. A normal human being cannot digest them all or sort them out. So the modern Syntopicon must assist the user to find the most relevant sources. That's why sorting algorithms like "Page Rank" makes huge sense here.

It's also this prejudice that solved the original problem the Syntopicon meant to solve: The Paradox of Syntopical Reading.

  • Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically,
  • but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read.

The Syntopicon tried to solve this paradox by letting a third party read all the books syntopically first. And Google uses the same solution. It's just that for Google, this third party is not a human being, but thousands of machines. The "Page Rank" algorithm is how Google read syntopically.

So what about the future? What's the future for the Syntopicon? To me, the ultimate Syntopicon is a personalized assistant that feeds me everything I need to know, at the right place, and at the right time. Google Assistant is the product that follows this path. And I cannot wait to see more technology breakthroughs in this direction.