Old and New

Posted: 2021-11-12

I’ve been thinking recently about the emphasis put on “new”, specifically for search engines, but the discussion has some merit even in a wider context. I will start wide and narrow down.

It is common to conflate new with good, and most being young sometime between 1950-2000 will indeed have seen marvellous improvements in quality of life and technology with each passing year. In the light of that, it’s at least easy to explain how one might confuse the two.

Some even came to think that this period of stable prosperity, unlike the others that came before it, is somehow an exception, or that we are all an exception set apart from history. In practice and like all the other periods of stable prosperity, it seems to have been a historical fluke, a trend that if it hasn’t outright reversed, has at least slowed down significantly. Change is inevitable, improvement is not.

When something that we thought brought prosperity stops working, we have the unfortunate habit of doubling down on what is no longer working. Human sacrifice no longer appeases the gods? Sacrifice more humans! Change stopped bringing prosperity? Worship change harder.

Progress has brought so many gifts that nobody seems to have even thought of asking the question “toward what?” Progress implies if not a destiny at least some destination. Well what do I know, maybe there is some MC Escher-alternative where we can keep progressing at the same rate forever toward nothing in particular.

That was a bit of a tangent, but the point is that there is really no reason to think that new things are better or worse than old things. Oftentimes, the way things have gotten old is that they have worked so well nobody thought to replace them. In all times, there were good and bad things. The bad things rarely stick around, which means that the old things that do linger often have good reason to do so. The bar for good that new things must overcome keeps getting higher.

The opposite isn’t true either, old isn’t necessarily better. The axes of old/new, good/bad are probably mostly orthogonal.

It seems important to some search engine developers, to pick up on changes very quickly.

For of search results, oftentimes new is completely irrelevant. If I’m looking for a recipe, does it matter if it’s a new recipe? Do I even want the newest recipe? Isn’t it a selling point that it’s your grandma’s original recipe. I may want a novel recipe, one that I haven’t tried, but that is not the same as saying it was just published. Of course it is a good thing if the food I eat is new, but food is perishable in a way that a recipe is not.

The ones that mostly stand to benefit from search results being fresh are the websites. They want to make changes in people’s behavior by making changes to their site. They want to watch in near real-time how the visitors come pouring in. Does that actually benefit the users in any way?

Even in the case of news, new isn’t always better. More often than not, news articles that deal with a current topic consist almost entirely of speculation, rumor, gossip and opinion. If ever, it is only much later, once the dust has settled that balanced factual information gets printed.

From a practical standpoint, the most recently published documents are the documents a search engine knows the least about. They could be good or they could be bad. Keeping up with changes seems like a job for RSS. A search engine stands to benefit from being far more judicious.