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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Philosophy of Technology and Search Engines (Googology?)

Sunday thoughts.

I adore google. It has improved my web use, through its search engine magic, infinitely. I also love gmail, in particular its message threading and its efficient searching of your own messages stored there.

The verb, to google, is commonly used by me and others on a daily basis. In fact, The American Dialect Society chose the verb to google as the "most useful word of 2002".
An alternative usage of the expression "to google" has sprung up on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. On the campus, the expression has been used as a verb to mean "to copulate with" (...)

An alternative usage of the word is in saying that "some brand or concept does (or doesn't) google", which indicates whether or not useful information can be found on it using a quick internet search (commonly with the Google engine). For instance, a person named David Jones, or a computer program named 'Click' don't google, since using either as a query would return hundreds of unrelated links. Both search engines and companies try to ensure that the most relevant results are returned first, thus virtually every well-known company googles.

Google itself does not like this usage, fearing the dilution and potential loss of its trademark like Yo-Yo, Xerox and escalator (...). The company went as far as to send a cease and desist letter to Paul McFedries, creator of, a website that tracks neologisms.

I had no idea I was going to learn those other meanings, and thus no plan to mention them here, but they are really interesting so I had to log them.

Google powers blogger and blogspot too, and you can even google google!

But, what I was leading up to talking about (before I got distracted with marvellous linguistic factettes), was about Google as God. It came about when, in response to an LJ post I read, someone was advised to ask the google god. Wow.

Reasons galore as to why google is the new god flooded my head. I wanted to know what others thought. So who did I ask? Why, the Google God. Many people have wondered about, discussed, read and written about that very thing.

Someone has written a paper entitled Google as God: the Theology of Search Engines. A reiki-practising social worker has written My Google God, there are techies and Christian folk writing about it, presentations at international conferences and comparison charts.

Many of the articles, essays and blog entries I read were written in response to a NY Times article written by Thomas L. Friedman following a visit he made to the google headquarters.

In a lot of what I have been reading this last half hour, Friedman is misquoted as saying,
"If I can operate Google, I can find anything. And with wireless, it means I will be able to find anything, anywhere, anytime. Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too."
In fact, he was quoting Alan Cohen, a V.P. of Airespace.

I think that google is a god of our time. Of sorts.

Throughout history, humans have made God into whatever they wanted or needed Him or Her to be at that time. While following available religious texts, the room for interpretation has meant that the most powerful people of the time could, and would, interpret the readings or lessons or messages in a way which was most appropriate for them or others at that time.

I am talking mainly about Christianity as that is what I know the most about. At times, God has been a punitive, angry and jealous being. At others a loving, caring father. In other circumstances S/He is a dictator of morals, or someone to be adored and worshipped, or to be feared. A lot of the historical periods of Christianity's understanding of God contained elements of all the above, but at different times, some aspects are seen as key and central whereas in other times it is other characteristics which predominate.

God's nature has always been relevant and appropriate to the times of those who believe in him. Humans have always made him fit in with their understanding and experience of life.

So, is Google God? Well, google is pretty much omniscient, and omnipresent too. Omnibenevolent I doubt. And omnipotent - arguably. In societies like that which we live, the media has an awful lot of power. People who decide what information we have, how it is presented, how much detail we learn, execute an immense amount of control over what we know, how we think, what we care about. Google, in being a gateway to the vast amount of information on the net, and the way in which it orders its search results and presents the information, can affect the concerns and awarenesses of those who use it.

Of course google isn't a spiritual or religious God. But it is a god which fits in with our knowledge, experience and lifestyles as we live them now. And in many ways that is what God has always been.

Christianity Today points out that The Internet is arguably the first non-deity in human history to be ascribed with ubiquitous sentience. (...) You can learn the average annual rainfall in Myanmar from a coffee shop in Topeka, or check last night's baseball scores from Siberia.

The author then goes on to look at other bloggers' responses to the question, including
A better question than "Is Google God?", wrote another, is: "Is Google wise? The wisdom of the answer depends on the wisdom of the question."
"The answer to Friedman's question ['Is Google God'?] is rather simple: No. Because Google knows but doesn't understand. … Google's ability of metareasoning is limited to one level and it cannot by itself metareason about its metareasoning."
This is also backed up by Quentin Schultze, who says
"Knowledge about is merely the accumulation of mediated information, whereas knowledge of includes intimate understanding, seasoned judgment, and active participation".

These are all valid points, which I respect.

Google has its fans, and many other computer companies are in awe of this corporation which is succeeding so hugely where so many have failed.

Google indexes and analyzes 1.5 billion Web pages. When I typed in a search for 'Mr. Ed's real name,' Google started sorting 1.5 billion pages to find the pages that contain those words. Then Google found and analyzed all the links to all the pages that have those words. Finally, Google combined all of that to give me a list of results.

It did it in 0.17 seconds.

And sure enough, the first site Google listed told me TV's Mr. Ed was played by a horse named Bamboo Harvester, and he was made to talk by sticking a peanut butterlike substance under his gums, which he'd try to get out by moving his mouth and tongue.

(I like logoogle, a collection of fake google logos!).