STATE OF THE UNION

STATE OF THE UNION - Someone called Rachel said she began dating an internet start-up guy when she found, on Google, that he'd sold his stake for dollars 10m.

by Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker - www.nickdenton.org
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Someone called Rachel said she began dating an internet start-up guy when she found, on Google, that he'd sold his stake for dollars 10m.

In William Gibson's new novel, Pattern Recognition, the heroine doesn't research, she 'googles'. Gibson has formally entered the internet search engine into the language as a verb. It's a hint that Google is more than yet another Silicon Valley start-up, destined to burn brightly and then leave everyone wondering what happened.

Google is worthy of attention merely as a business. Together with a company called Overture, it has revived the internet advertising market. Google is set to go public this summer, markets permitting, at a valuation of up to dollars 5 billion.

But it's the social and cultural consequences of Google that are most fascinating. For a medium-sized firm with fewer than 1,000 employees, Google has an entirely disproportionate impact. It's changing the character of research, publishing and even dating.

Much of this is attributable to the availability of information on the internet, and the development of the search engines, of which Google was by no means the first. But for many people, Google and the internet have become synonymous, so it's no exaggeration to say that the world is architecting itself around Google.

Take background checking. It's now standard practice in America's wired cities, such as San Francisco and New York, to google job applicants, as well as dates. Someone called Rachel, interviewed for the New York Observer, said she began dating an internet start-up guy once she discovered, on Google, that he'd sold his stake for dollars 10 million.

Then there's language. Word Spy, which tracks words not yet in dictionaries, defines Google as 'To search for information on the web, particularly by using the Google search engine; to search the web for information related to a new or potential girlfriend or boyfriend.'

As for social status, Google provides a new method of measurement. A growing number of people have personal sites or weblogs. Google gives each a score out of 10, based on the number of sites with references.

The higher the score, the higher the 'Google juice' and the more likely that your writings will show up in a Google search. For the web generation, these things matter.

How about personal publishing? Think you don't care, that these web people can play their silly contests for Google juice? Well, say that again when a search for your name turns up a bitchy web post from a former colleague.

By making it so easy to search for personal information, Google provides a powerful reason for individuals to create their own web presence.

There's also design. Many first-generation web sites were graphically rich, but that's now a no-no. This is in part because graphics are invisible to Google, and to Google users. Smart web publishers design their sites to be easy for Google to index, which means more text and fewer whizzy Flash animations.

Political freedom. Last year, the Chinese government tried to block access to Google, fearing its citizens were accessing pernicious information.

Local technologists and entrepreneurs complained enough to restore service.

As a gateway to the internet, Google could ensure a free press.

It has become a universal wish list. Some people list on their personal web pages friends they'd like to track down. The principle being that Google will index the sites, and when Rachel Williams from school 'ego-surfs' for her name, she'll discover that Ken still remembers her fondly.

These personal pages might become repositories of an individual's interests, bids and offers, for people and goods, brought to the entire world by Google.

Media populism. Online media has been responsive to reader interests, in large part because the data are unequivocal. Salon, the online magazine, soon discovered that stories about sex attracted many more clicks than political features. And Google makes online publishers even more populist.

Any site can see, in its logs, users' Google search terms.

Terrorism. Google has radically altered the balance of intelligence between governments and individuals. But breaking the governmental and corporate monopoly of databased information comes at a price. It has become clear that the terrorist network Al-Qaeda not only uses web-based e-mail to communicate but does most of its research on the internet. Government agencies can edit the internet - removing information about nuclear plant safety procedures, for example - but cannot deny information without great economic costs.

And the list goes on, as far as imagination or paranoia can stretch.

Google tracks the search phrases of every user; Google searches provide the most complete and uncensored profile of an individual's wants and interests. Imagine if a government got hold of that data and tied it to a person's name. But lest this near-future seem too dystopian, let me assure you that the heroine of Gibson's latest novel, aided by the power of Google, wins the day.

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