This pattern continues in technical fields. In computer vision, for example, a method of identifying the subject of images is the top cited paper. Image recognition and classification was becoming increasingly important in 2006, and the technique the paper describes, called spatial pyramid matching, remains important as a method for image matching. Once more, Google itself remains an obvious beneficiary of computer vision methods.
To claim that these papers “stand the test of time,” as Henderson does, is suspect. Instead, they show that the most popular scholarship is the kind that happened to find purchase on a current or emerging trend, just at the time that it was becoming a concern for a large group of people in a field, and for whom that interest amplified rather than dissipated. A decade hence, the papers haven’t stood the test of time so much as proved, in retrospect, to have taken the right bet at the right moment—where that moment also corresponds directly with the era of Google’s ascendance and dominance.
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PageRank and Classic Papers reveal Google’s theory of knowledge: What is worth knowing is what best relates to what is already known to be worth knowing. Given a system that construes value by something’s visibility, be it academic paper or web page, the valuable resources are always the ones closest to those that already proved their value.
Google enjoys the benefits of this reasoning as much as anyone. When Google tells people that it has found the most lasting scholarly articles on a subject, for example, the public is likely believe that story because they also believe Google tends to find the right answers.
But on further reflection, a lot of Google searches do not produce satisfactory answers, products, businesses, or ideas. Instead, they tend to point to other venues with high reputations, like Wikipedia and Amazon, with which the public has also developed an unexamined relationship of trust. When the information, products, and resources Google lists don’t provide a solution to the problem the seeker sought, the user has two options. Either continue searching with more and more precise terms and conditions in the hopes of being led to more relevant answers, or shrug and click the links provided, resolved to take what was given. Most choose the latter.
This way of consuming information and ideas has spread everywhere else, too. The goods worth buying are the ones that ship via Amazon Prime. The Facebook posts worth seeing are the ones that show up in the newsfeed. The news worth reading is the stuff that shows up to be tapped on. And as services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram incorporate algorithmic methods of sorting information, as Google did for search, all those likes and clicks and searches and hashtags and the rest become votes—recommendations that combine with one another to produce output that’s right by virtue of having been sufficiently right before.