What Happened to My Search Engine?
Or why tech upgrades are now mostly downgrades
At first I didn’t believe it. But the evidence is overwhelming. For the first time in history, technology is getting worse, not better.
How is that even possible?
I am told that some people attend NASCAR races just to see crashes. But nowadays they should follow high tech instead—blow-ups are everywhere.
Take a look at the current space race where billionaires spend lavishly to watch things go boom. Before a recent rocket blowup, Elon Musk only gave 50-50 odds that his spaceship would reach orbit.”
Instead he promised excitement.
We’ve come a long way from the days when Gene Kranz, NASA’S Chief Flight Director during the Apollo program, told his team: “Failure is not an option.”
When did 50-50 odds of destruction become an acceptable tech strategy? But it’s not just rocket launches.
I recently bought an expensive new computer. And after a few weeks, I went back to my old computer—it ran better than the new model.
I didn’t expect that. I’ve been buying new computers for decades, and always assumed that newer is better.
And until recently it was.
But here’s the new reality: Upgrades are now actually downgrades. At first it was just software—those dreaded updates!—but increasingly it’s hardware too.
For a while, I resisted returning to my old desktop model. I assumed the problem had to be with me, not the hardware. Surely computers had gotten better over the last several years?
Tech always get better, doesn’t it?
No, it doesn’t. Not anymore. And especially not on the web.
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Things are so bad on the web that the information superhighway has turned into the data equivalent of raw sewage. In the near future, I’ll write about the larger reasons for this unexpected reversal. But today I want to provide a single case study.
The title of the case study is:
WHAT HAPPENED TO MY SEARCH ENGINE?
Did it change? Or did I?
I once loved new technology. I lived in the heart of Silicon Valley for 25 years, and was bursting with enthusiasm for its free-wheeling mission to transform the world—and have some fun along the way.
When the Worldwide Web made its debut, I thought I’d found Nirvana. It was like tech was turning everything into a game.
But look at me now. When I hear the phrase ‘web platform’ I reach for my gun.
Where did it go wrong? Did I just get old and embittered? Or did something change in the tech world?
Let me share a story that might help us decide.
This is a story about the birth of the search engine.
There were no commercial search engines back in 1993. But a Stanford student named David Filo compiled a list of his 200 favorite websites.
His buddy Jerry Yang helped turn this into an online list. They called it “Jerry’s Guide to the Worldwide Web.” Filo and Yang added new websites every day to their list—and classified them according to categories.
This turned into Yahoo.
Here’s my favorite part of the story: These two students didn’t even know they were running a business.
“Google generates around $5 in revenues monthly per user. So here’s the deal—I’ll pay them twice that. They just need to give me real search results and stop spying on me. But they won’t give me that option.”
They did it for fun. They did it out of love. They did it because it was cool. “We wanted to avoid doing our dissertations,” Yang later explained.
But a venture capitalist named Mike Moritz heard about Filo and Yang, and tracked them down. The founders of Yahoo were living in total squalor in a trailer littered with stale food and pizza boxes, strewed alongside sleeping bags and overheating computers. A phone rang constantly—but nobody bothered to pick it up.
Moritz was dismayed by this dorm-room-gone-wild ambiance, but he was impressed with the students’ web searching technology. So he asked them the obvious question: How much did they plan to charge users?
Filo and Yang had no answer for this. They wanted to give their tech away for free.
Yahoo wasn’t even selling ads back then. It wasn’t tracking users and selling their private information. It didn’t even have a bank account.
But it was a community and had millions of users.
That was a word you heard frequently in Silicon Valley in the early days. People didn’t build web platforms—they formed online communities.
It was a FUN community. People enjoyed being a member. Even the absurd name Yahoo was part of the game—although early investors hated it.
Yang’s job title was “Chief Yahoo.” Filo’s position was “Cheap Yahoo.”
Investors always hate those kinds of things.
But a new web business, back then, was expected to have a silly name. Here are some of the websites launched in the mid-1990s.
Moritz wanted to turn Yahoo into a business. And the founders realized that their fun community was growing faster than they could handle in their down-and-out trailer. So they sold out 25% of Yahoo for $1 million.
That was the origin of web culture.
It was free and fun, benevolent and empowering. The goal wasn’t profit maximization. People really wanted to make the world a better place. And they created technology that could do it.
Even when Google launched a few months later (which I witnessed firsthand, as described here), they imitated the goofy name of their leading competitor. Google’s motto “Don’t be evil” sounded like a superhero’s vow.
Even at that point, Yahoo might have prevailed. But it turned into a case study in stupidity. Maybe it just wasn’t evil enough.
Meanwhile Google thrived while doing no evil—at least for a while. But they eventually had to ditch their anti-evil rule.
What can we learn from this origin story of the search engine?
Back then, techies had lofty ideals and helped people form communities. They didn’t take themselves too seriously—and certainly didn’t obsess about power and money. They actually worked to empower users. And they refused to be evil.
A lot has changed. But are these upgrades actually improvements?
Here are the things missing from the original search engines.
They didn’t practice 24/7 surveillance of users.
They didn’t sell user’s private information.
They didn’t fill up search results with garbage in order to collect placement fees.
They didn’t manipulate users—prodding them to use ancillary services.
They didn’t make it difficult (or sometimes impossible) to remove the search engine from your computer.
They didn’t force you to log in and create a profile—so that they could have more private info to sell to third parties.
They didn’t put ‘cookies’ on your computer so that your online movements could be more easily monetized.
They didn’t work with authoritarian regimes and government censors so that political agendas could be embedded into your search results.
They didn’t lobby Congress to weaken copyright protections, block antitrust prosecution, avoid transparency, and disempower users.
They didn’t kiss the asses of foreign dictators in order to maintain overseas distribution.
They didn’t even sell ads.
Those aren’t small changes. And they definitely aren’t user upgrades.
All this runs counter to everything we’ve been taught about technology—which is supposed to deliver progress.
Or, at a minimum, we accept stagnancy. But in this instance, every aspect of this technology has gotten worse.
These platforms can barely even deliver their most basic function, namely providing results to a search query. And all the add-ons can hardly be called enhancements—except if you use that term to mislead (as when they rebranded torture as enhanced interrogation).
I can’t be the only person who prefers the fun and liberating user-oriented communities described in our origin story. I would even pay for them. In fact, I’m sure I’d pay Google more than it makes right now by selling my boring private details and forcing ads down my throat.
Just give me a clean interface with honest results and no surveillance. How much does Google want for that?
I’ve done the math. Google generates around $5 in revenues monthly per user. So here’s the deal—I’ll pay them twice that. They just need to give me real search results and stop spying on me.
But they won’t give me that option. There’s nothing they hate more than people opting out from their online police state.
So do you understand why I’ve soured on technology?
I haven’t changed much at all since those innocent days—okay, I’m a bit heavier and grayer and sagging in the wrong places. But my values haven’t changed.
That’s something Google can’t claim. Their technology has become corrupt and dysfunctional. It hurts society.
They could fix it. But they won’t.
And before you tell me this is impossible, just remember that I’m not asking for utopia. I’m simply requesting a return to the priorities and values all the leading web companies embraced just a few years ago.
If they can’t find a way back to those guiding principles, somebody will force their hand. That always happens sooner or later.
You can’t maintain a dominant business when people hate you. And that’s the state of play right now—users despise their tech overlords. The antipathy grows with each passing month.
When they find a way of exacting revenge (and they will), all the billionaires in Silicon Valley won’t be able to stop them.
That’s all for now. But I’'ll be returning to this subject soon—with a deeper analysis of how we got into this mess. And what steps we can take to fix it.