Over the last few years there has been much talk and policy development around the notions of media literacy and information literacy. Within this arena, our ability to access and navigate vast data spaces has created giant companies with powerful brands.

But how good are we at search and how good will it get?

You will often find sentences in IT future-gazing scenarios such as ‘in the future search tools will become so personalised and intuitive that whatever you wish to find will be high on the first page’.

A quick search on ‘what is the cure for Cancer?’ returns among others a single by the Group Eels, on the first page. Similarly ‘Where is Osama bin Laden?’ comes up mostly with suggestions that he is already dead and offers no helpful insights into where he might be.

So it’s clear that we are some way off that nirvana. When you try to construct a future road map that illustrates what might be possible and when you hit a few interesting problems.

What types of information problems are there? Is there a useful taxonomy to be able to estimate progress?

Let me illustrate:

A Type A problem is where there is a single an answer to a question. If you try ‘Who won the FA Cup in 1968?’, the answer comes up number one on the list.

A Type B problem is where there are multiple choices that the person will use to make a decision.

If you want to find a holiday in the sun in April for parents and two teenage boys with a fixed budget, then it doesn’t take long to find any number of possible sites that will help. The range on offer is far greater than any previous method we have had.

So we can build Type A and Type B tools today. What are types C and onward? Consider a type say F, that we cannot do today purely by automation. What will enable us to do so in the future?

Being on the speaker circuit and doing lots of workshops I like to build little games to get people warmed up.

Try this one:

‘ Which town, author and pioneer in her field link together Meryl Streep, Sir Crispin Tickell and ‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore’’.

What type or class of information problem is this?

20 Librarians in a room with no resources solved this in forty seconds. Indeed they mentioned links that could not be verified on the internet.

Indeed when I have used this on a number of occasions with different groups what has been discoverable on the internet has varied with bits appearing and some vanishing.

I keep hearing phrases like ‘once you send any information into the digital world it’s there forever’.

Another one is ‘everything you want to know is already on the internet’

They are myths, and possibly dangerous ones.

Now when I first used the earlier problem with an IT savvy group I got an interesting result. Around 100 people with laptops and smart phones took 5 minutes to solve the problem. The fastest group since was around 3 minutes, but when quizzed prior knowledge (as with the librarians) was a major factor.

So let me explain what I mean by ‘search literacy’. Faced with a problem a person is search literate if they can choose the appropriate tools for the task and analyse the problem effectively to use the tools available to tackle the problem.

The power of Google and Bing and the specialised tools have made it seem easy to find information. We can be seduced into a lazy confidence.

I am sometimes astonished at how poor some adults (including IT professionals) are at working out how to analyse information problems and then use the the tools to solve a problem as opposed to solve my Type A problem.

We build tools of incredible power, but if they are to be exploited effectively, in life or work, then we need to ensure that we understand the combination of IT and human skills needed to address a problem. As the tools develop that combination will itself evolve.

We have discovered that media and information literacy is not a static goal.

If you are so inclined try this exercise:

Draw up a timeline say 10 years into the future. What research is currently underway or available that will be capable of being commercialised in the next 5 years that will help us tackle information problems? What types of information problem will become automatable that can’t be today?

What are the skills implications of the new search capabilities?

Now if I could type that into Google and get an answer that would be nirvana.

Hype springs eternal.

PS I’ll post the answer to the problem in a week or so, if no-one else does.

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.