Wednesday, February 02, 2005

In praise of Google...


Enter "time in Beijing" into the search engine and it will tell you the actual time in Beijing; put "John-Stevens New-Mexico" into Google and it will give you the phone numbers and home addresses of four people by that name in that state.

"It becomes an extension of my mind, an extension of my taste, my sensibility, my active memory," says Sherry Turkle, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. We no longer need to remember, yet nor can we ever truly forget, because everything's out there, logged and stored. It's not so much that knowledge is power. Dominating the market in the tools people use to navigate that knowledge - which is what Gates wants to do now - is the true source of power. Own that, and is it too much of an overstatement to say that you own a little piece of people's brains?

In truth, Microsoft has been incredibly late in coming to the game. A recent survey, conducted before the full launch of MSN Search, showed that the site that 66% of Microsoft employees were using to do their searching was ... Google. The California-based company, founded in 1998 by the Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, revolutionised the concept of searching. Its system relies on the wisdom of crowds - the belief that the more people link to a page, the more authoritative it becomes.

At a stroke, searching was democratised. There was no need for people to sit at desks, categorising pages according to their subject matter; the classification of information on the internet became a self-supporting, organic structure. The power to find things on the internet was in the hands of the people, not the programmers. (MSN Search appears to follow a similar logic.)

Google also happened upon an ingenious source of revenue for its ever-expanding operations. As web users became increasingly exhausted by louder and louder and more and more annoying advertising, Google introduced low-key advertising on its results pages, matched to the words being searched for. The ads got their value not by bludgeoning users around the head, but by being precisely targeted to their specific interests - an advertiser's demographic dream. Competition is hotting up: A9, the search facility attached to the website of the bookseller, allows visitors to search the text and footnotes of books - real books, made of paper - before committing to purchasing them.

But do we really want all this new information?


Now I don't want to get into the "structured thought is more than a link" argument that mars the rest of this article. The stuff that Google references is comprised of structured thoughts. And of course, let the searcher beware...I think the cautionary stuff in that article is just there for balance... for readers trained to do research and think for themselves, Google is a god-send.

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