Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Is Google God? Maybe not, but it's way up there.

The company's stock is surging into the empyrean, vaulting up 80 percent since its IPO. And Google has just been blessed, too, with a major legal victory over Geico; the insurance company had sued Google to prevent Geico's inclusion in Google searches, and the case was thrown out of court. And of course, to Google's googolplex of loyal users, the search engine is an endless source of information, even inspiration.

But Google's awe-inspiring quintessence was made manifest by its recent announcement that it would put the texts of some of the world's leading libraries online, for free. That's a remarkable act of corporate benefaction and vision -- putting the lie, yet again, to the charge that capitalism is neglectful of public goods. The Googlers will spend millions on this project; they deserve our admiration, if not outright adoration.

So, thanks to the free market -- with, to be fair, a key assist from the Pentagon -- humanity is now on its way to preventing, ever again, a repeat of one of the great disasters of human history, the burning of the Alexandria library, back in what should rightfully be called the Dark Ages. Today, thanks to technology and generosity, it's possible to imagine that all the knowledge piled up by people will be so widely distributed that no book-burners or freedom-stiflers will ever be able to destroy our common legacy of learning.

One might even compare Google's effort to legendary Prometheus, the god who stole fire from heaven for the benefit of men. For his trouble, Prometheus was chained to a rock, picked at by birds. Let's hope, as a sign of the better times that we live in, that the Google troika of Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt, are not only remembered forever, but also, as a bonus, get even richer as a result of their gift to us.

But let's also pay homage to those who long ago imagined what the world might be like in our era. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, maybe novelists are the unacknowledged technologists of the world. Voltaire imagined space travel in "Micromegas," published in 1752, reckoned by many to be the first sci-fi story. And of course, greater sci-fi figures such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells anticipated much of the 20th century.

But none of those greats envisioned the Internet. Interestingly, that magical insight came to two very different people in the same year, 1945. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges published a short story, "The Aleph," in which he conjured up the power of intellectual omniscience:

"I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I'd seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny -- Philemon Holland's -- and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon -- the unimaginable universe."

That same year, 1945, the American scientist-statesman Vannevar Bush -- chairman of the Defense Research Committee during World War Two, among many other important posts over a half century of public and academic service -- published an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, "As We May Think," in which he imagined what he called "memex," a paperless filing cabinet and instantly retrievable library. Thus did Bush prefigure the Internet and the World Wide Web, foreseeing even the "hyperlink" future of the Net:

"Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them . . . the lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience . . . the physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology."

Now, six decades later, the Internet is here, ubiquitous and omnipotent, embracing more wisdom all the time -- a virtuous Borg.

So to the question, once again: "Is Google God?"

The answer, of course, is "no." If anything, we are the gods. "Man created the Internet" will be the beginning of some future book of genesis. And all of us created Google and the info-sea in which it swims. Yet as we look down at that brainy deep, we see everything in that new realm. We observe good and evil, the gloriousness and ghastliness of our old world, all of it recapitulated in our new online world. Yup, everything is therein, from the greatest flights of intellectual comprehension to the lowest depths of pornographic degradation.

The Net brings to mind the words of the poet William Blake, and Google makes it possible to find 41,700 references to Blake's words in one-fifth of a second:

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

Can anything go wrong with this picture? Might we, for example, be raising a "Tower of Google" that will come tumbling down in an earth-crash of hubris? Or might we delude ourselves into thinking that we can use technology to solve all our problems, and then die of broken hearts when it fails? Could we listen to false and dangerous voices, which gain unjustified credibility because they speak through the Net?

Maybe. And so maybe we'd better be careful.

The Net has made us more powerful -- much more powerful, infinitely more powerful. But we still must fear our own strength. We must be humble. And for lessons on humility we can turn to many sources, most notably history, which teaches the powerful and the proud stern lessons about folly and falling.

So let us reinvoke Borges, author of "The Aleph." At the end of that lyrical, rapturous passage, in which the narrator sees "the unimaginable universe," Borges gives that narrator an interesting and sobering conclusion: "I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity."

Which sounds about right. The Net, and now Google, have made us bigger, but not necessarily better. And bigger, if it means bigger weapons and bigger appetites for destruction, is worse. So even as we feel wonder at our achievements, we must feel pity for our future if we aren't wise. And above all, we must never think that we are gods, beyond challenge, beyond mistakes, beyond the potential for destruction and self-destruction.

Those are lessons that bracket even the great Google, as alpha and omega.

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