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The Fate of Curiosity

Albert Einstein dubbed it “holy.” Thomas Hobbes called it “lust for the mind.” Anatole France said it was “the greatest virtue of man.”  Curiosity is the innate, inner drive that motivates us all to seek new knowledge — to question, to explore, to look things up, to dig deeper. It’s why Benjamin Franklin flew his kite, Lewis and Clark headed west, and the three-year-old sitting next to you is asking so many questions. We are all born with an intrinsic desire to understand our world. 

Now, thousands of years after the dawn of mankind, technology has finally caught up with humans’ endless curiosity. Thanks to the internet, we now have 5 billion gigabytes of information at our fingertips, waiting to be uncovered. With the swipe of a finger, we can indulge any interest, ponder any question and be drawn into a web of knowledge that could feed our curiosity for days. 

But, the question remains — will this unparalleled access to information lead to a new Golden Age for curiosity? Or, could it actually lead to curiosity’s demise?  And, most importantly, as the purveyor’s of the world’s information, do search engines control curiosity’s fate? 

Search engines currently approach curiosity like engineers, oftentimes treating it as an ailment that needs to be cured. With ruthless efficiency, they diagnose a searcher’s problem, providing a speedy answer so they can be on their way. But, as rapid answer providers, do search engines risk squelching curiosity? Could their quick-fire results actually lead people to see information just as a functional tool to achieve some external goal, rather than a pleasure in itself?  

Better yet, to ensure the future of curiosity, would it be better for search engines to start acting more like philosophers than engineers — treating knowledge as an open-ended journey rather than a finite destination — romancing questions, instead of just providing answers? To do this, search engines could start taking inspiration from other players in the digital space like Wikigame, a learning entertainment platform that asks people to find the thread connecting different pieces of information. Or, Qwiki, a platform that presents information in small multimedia bites.

Consider this. A child turns to you and asks, “What’s a star?” Is it better to offer a fast, succinct answer, “A star is a ball of hydrogen and helium held together by gravity”? Or, is it better to invite the child to explore the intricacies and wonder of the solar system in all its glory?

With curiosity’s fate in their hands, it’s time for search engines to start rethinking how they serve up the world’s information. Do they continue acting as an antidote for curiosity, trying to cure it with quick, direct answers? Or, do they start acting more like a vitamin, nourishing curiosity to continue to push mankind to question, explore and discover?

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