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A picture’s worth

Why is it so hard to find images online?

There’s an itch that the Internet and its all-seeing search engines hasn’t yet scratched: visual search.

Despite all the improvements to the UI (see Bing and Google’s recent efforts) and technology (including the amazing TinEye), it remains stubbornly difficult to find digital copies of the images one see’s so clearly in the mind’s eye.

For example, I have this clear memory of a scene in Return of the Jedi — an X-wing fighter crashing and exploding into the shields of the Death Star in the movie’s final battle. Subsequent viewings, however, never showed that particular scene. Fruitless Internet searches years later left me unsure whether it was the search engines, or my memory, failing. (Upon the re-release of the “original” edition, it was clearly a false memory explaining what could have happened.)

, a similar situation resurfaced, despite the many years of search technology improvement. In an episode of Mad Men, two characters are brainstorming an ad for Samonsite luggage. A mouse makes a random appearance, and an elephant is constantly mentioned in conversation. Instantly, I recognized the reference to a classic suitcase ad showing an elephant balancing on a suitcase after being scared by a mouse.

The visual, along with the design of the ad, was clearly discernible in my mind.

, I decided to look for it online. Again, nothing. Instead, all I found were references to other people trying to find the ad. They all recalled the same images I did, and none had managed to find a copy of the ad either. A massive ad campaign of decades passed had, for all intents and purposes, morphed into a figment of our collective consciousness.

There is something poetic in the thought that these iconic images become, in essence, legendary in a time when almost everything else is discoverable.

But, really, I still would like to see that ad again.