The Global Id
What scares people about this is the feeling that Google has a masterplan, and that they are advancing towards world information and financial dominance. It isn’t clear that that’s right, though. My sense of it (and it’s only a sense) is that Google advances more by letting its engineers invent things and solve problems, or perceived problems, one at a time, and that as long as the problem being solved broadly fits with the overall mission statement, they’ll go ahead with it. Some of these stabs seem well thought out, others less so. At the same time the core focus on search stays. People who work in the field say that search is only 5 per cent ‘solved’, and that the huge amount of information located on the internet but (for a variety of reasons) unavailable to searches remains an enormously difficult problem to solve. It seems likely that this focus will give the company plenty to chew on for many years, even after the overheated share price cools off.Worthwhile reading, if [you are] so inclined.
So: is Google a good thing? The geek in me wants to say yes. It certainly has made finding information incomparably easier. Some of the information is even true...
Despite such glitches, Google is from the research point of view invaluable. I’ve used it on a more or less daily basis for the last five years, but it was only when I began working on this piece that I fully realised just how many features it has added, as part of an ambition to do ‘something intelligent’ with every query. Google Scholar, which searches academic papers, is very useful, and will become more so. The powerful calculator feature, which will do advanced maths as well as highly practical things like converting square feet into metres, is useful. The character ˜ lets you search for synonyms, and is useful. Google News, which was invented by an engineer, Krishna Bharat, using his 20 per cent time to come up with a broadly global news service in the wake of 9/11, is useful, and terrifies conventional news organisations. The translation service isn’t useful yet, but I bet it will be one day. The command ‘define’ is a useful quick way of finding what a word means. The blog search is fairly handy and will get better. Google Earth isn’t particularly useful, but it is brutally cool: you begin with a satellite view and gradually descend to earth, homing in with a level of detail which can give you a view of your own house (also, it turns out, of secret military installations). Gmail, with its super-swift searching and 2GB of free space, is amazing, if you don’t mind the fact that your email is scanned and used to target ads (and stored indefinitely). Google Maps is useful, and, because Google lets people write APIs (application programming interfaces) to adapt its programs in ways they find personally helpful, will grow more and more useful over time. One dark example: an API giving a map of sex offenders in the USA, which lets people see whether there are any registered sex offenders near them, and where the sex offender lives. Nice.
On a lighter note, Froogle, the shopping search service, is sort of useful, and has a feature which chills the blood of conventional retailers: when you’re out in the high street and see something you want to buy, you can text its name to 64664 and Froogle will text back the best price it can find online. Also cool is Google Zeitgeist, which tells you which search terms have most increased in frequency in the past year. For 2005 the top five items are Myspace, Ares, Baidu, Wikipedia and Orkut – all of which, I notice in my trendspotting hat, involve some sort of sharing, searching, meeting or collaborating online. It must be said that the coolness of Zeitgeist is reduced by the fact that it no longer lists the most declining search terms. In 2002, the last year they gave this info, the five most increased searches were for Spider-Man, Shakira, Winter Olympics, World Cup and Avril Lavigne; the five most decreased searches were for Nostradamus, Napster, Anthrax, World Trade Center and Osama bin Laden. Thus did we recover from the trauma of 9/11.
Technologically, Google is an amazing thing...
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist