Search Finds a Nerve to Rub Raw

Updated: When is too much information way, way, way too much? When it's creepy.

Internet search technology may be getting too smart for its own good, says Michelle Weil, co-author of the book "TechnoStress."

Bleeding-edge search products no longer have to be told what to do. Theres a growing number like Watson 2.0, from Chicago, Ill.-based Intellext, which, on their own, selects keywords from a computer file you are working on.

Technical marvels, no doubt. But Weil and other mental health experts believe modern-day search products are going to deeply affect people suffering from technology-induced stress.

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Weils chief concern is how the new generation of search engines eliminate an alarming amount of the control people once had in the process.

Thats a quantum leap in the amount of pressure technology puts on some people to do more work, and at a faster pace, to make full use of their digital prowess.

TechnoStress also afflicts those that abhor the Internets information overload, and/or unwanted interruptions like pop-up ads or instant messages.

"Now were empowering the computer to do things that are expected to distract and interrupt our focus," she said. "I could see this might fit for certain types of people. But the personality that wants to control their environment will be put off by it."

Indeed, some of Weils theories are proving out to some degree.

Some people who used Watson said during recent interviews they experienced a feeling of unease in addition to the usual paranoia of falling victim to Identity theft, phishing scams, computer viruses and other Internet age problems.

"Wow, is that creepy," Charles Haste, a San Francisco software engineer whos downloaded, used and erased Watson 2.0 from his computer, wrote in an e-mail summing up his experience.

"I dont want my computer to be telling me what to do, particularly when Im not expecting it to," he adds. "I get the feeling I have another boss standing over my shoulder making suggestions that I dont need. I dont want a butler, I want a search engine."

People like Haste will have to get used to it, because a growing number of search engines are thinking for themselves.

Watson was hatched at the same Northwestern University think tank that created XLibris, an automated library search attendant that helps people do research by suggesting material for them based upon past library use.

A more mainstream example is search giant Google Inc.s Sidebar, which is part of Googles desktop search feature. Sidebar analyzes someones computer and Internet use, then delivers what it guesses to be relevant information.

Avoiding stressed out users is a challenge for any new technology maker, said Intellext Chief Technology Officer Jay Budzik.

To overcome the creepy search factor, Watsons designers deliberately made the feature stand out on computer screens, Budzik said.

There are also varying ways to take back control of Watson, depending on how comfortable users are with it, he said.

"The key to addressing stress is taking control," he said. "People stress mostly because they dont know why their computer is doing what its doing. Though, for some, tools that interrupt them will be stressors."

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One cure for all this? Just use a different search engine, said Gary Price, an editor of the Web site "There are plenty of search engines out there," he said.

But that may become harder to do for those seeking a simpler search rather than one that isnt cutting edge. Succeeding in the search business means always being bigger, smarter and better.

"Internet access is so ubiquitous and practical, our lives are moving online," Google CEO Eric Schmidt said during a recent conference call to discuss Google financial results. "The focus of users is on access to info, not search itself. People are increasingly demanding more intuitive search technologies."

Editors Note: This story was updated to include comments from Intellext Chief Technology Officer Jay Budzik.

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