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Ask Jeeves: Servants as Search Engines

- Markus Krajewski

By Ceci Moss


This loss of trust in humanoid media is accompanied by a new silence in the dialogue between master and servant. The language that is directed at the servant becomes terse. The previously still cultivated courtly official style gives way to short commands. The example of these commands reveals what has becomes apparent: communication has become machine language. William Thackeray even brags about this in 1850: “We never speak a word to the servant who waits on us for twenty years.” After its high point in the eighteenth century, communications between lords and servants seem to have come to a standstill. “In the Victorian household, there is an impression of increased silence.” What causes this silence? Something bisects the old human-human interface. The transition from listening to dumb waiter hints at the cause: the nineteenth century is a time in which the most varied services are transferred to technical media, which in their telematic, indirect, oblique communicative abilities replace the personal conversation with a depersonalized understanding. In this gradual but nonetheless comprehensive process of transferal may lie a reason why the corporation AskJeeves ultimately decided to abandon the imagery of the servant.

But why are these functional characteristics of various facets of domestic service relevant? Within those facets of the servant that elevate him or her to be the center of information gathering and dissemination is hidden a comparison with the service portfolio of a search engine. Thereby one may demonstrate how thoroughly the knowledge of search engines as well as domestics can be assessed. On the other hand, the implicit juxtaposition of servant and search engine susses out Jeeves, forcing one to pursue the question of the plausibility of the metaphor. The privileged knowledge of domestics feeds not only off their activity as messengers but also off their roles as literary narrators and as shapeshifters between the hierarchies, not to mention their effectiveness as spies. All of these facets—the collection of information, its transmission and bundling, and its eventual processing—suggest a servant in whom an actor may be seen, one who operates in a structurally analogous way to those agents that hunt data for Google: the transition from servant to bot takes just one small, significant step. Virtual agents like Googlebot, Teoma (the search bot of AskJeeves), and web crawlers in general are programmed to be informers that pass regularly through the Internet, constantly searching for new information, which they gainfully process.

With the transferal of the classic service functions to technical media, a setting emerges over the course of the nineteenth century and forms the basis of today’s familiar search engines. The servant is transformed into a technological conduit for data: first, as the telegraph wire, then the telephone line, and, ultimately, the modern computer data cable. With the delegation of service to things, the servant becomes a media-technical figure of knowledge, the descendents of which are the search bots of today.


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