Carnegie Mellon University

Searching... A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Information Retrieval

Author: David Haeselin

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2015

My dissertation is a response to conditions of ubiquitous search.  It argues that the promise of comprehensive and immediate search profoundly restructures the historical imagination as well as available methods for envisioning the future of intellectual inquiry. The project positions the search engine as a media artifact – conceived through human ingenuity, developed by human labor, processed by human cognition, and circulated via human culture – and follows a theoretical trajectory in the spirit of media archaeology in order to render it as such.

Contemporary scholarship on search, I argue, suffers at the hands of ahistorical thinking. Specialist accounts of search engine methodology discount its history and even media-historical scholarship overlooks cultural producers’ efforts to theorize the prospects and pitfalls of such technology. Conversely, my project highlights literary and aesthetic engagement with the scientific organization and retrieval of visual, audial, and textual media. My work draws from a diverse set of texts from 1936 onward: for example, literary fiction by James Agee and Thomas Pynchon, popular science fiction from Isaac Asimov, as well as studies on the “library of the future” by computing pioneers J.C.R. Licklider and Eugene Garfield. By reading culture into the history of information science, we witness the search engine as a site of interaction between information and its users, rather than as the solution to a wholly technical problem.