Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Google As Cultural Anthropology

I've just spent a second day yesterday at Borders reading The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. The book had me at page four when author John Battelle described Google as having the potential to store this Database of Intentions when we are able to analyse what people are searching for, and what results are being returned. And I was like....whoaaaa! Prof Battelle was a co-founder of Wired magazine and studied Cultural Anthropology in uni, so his angle on the story, apart from the obvious technological and business phenomenon that Google represents, is utterly fascinating. The philosopher in Sophie's World asks Sophie to think about these questions: Who am I? And why am I here?, I've always wanted to know What do you want? Google has the potential to provide this answer because the things that people are searching for on their computers mirrors exactly what their intentions are. Substitute 'intentions' for 'desires', 'wants', 'hopes', 'lusts', 'meaning of life' etc. And these intentions are like archaeological layers that we can then dig up and analyse. The Google Zeitgeist is a good superficial example of this, teasing us with some idea of what folks in various places are searching for. From that website,
"We should note that in compiling the Zeitgeist, no individual searcher's information is available or accessible to us. What you see here is a cumulative snapshot of interesting queries people are asking – some over time, some within country domains, and some on – that perhaps reveal a bit of the human condition. We appreciate the contribution all Google users make to these fascinating bits of information.
Internet surfers might not have found what they're looking for (well at least I know Bono hasn't), but Google knows what folks are trying to look for to a large extent. And it's not telling, partly due to technical reasons (there are so many interesting ways to present the Zeitgeist, and some really require lots of brute computing force!), and partly due to ethical ones like their Do No Evil ethic. But who knows what evil is? The book also covers the history of the search engines, a little more on how LarryPageRank came about, the constant battle against folks who try to work around the system, some legit, others not so legit, the innocent folks who suffer during Google Dance, the question of doing business of China... And oh, incidentally, Google has stopped addressing Taiwan as 'province of China' after getting complaints for the description in Google Maps. It has now taken away the description entirely, which I thought was a clever and reasonable way to sidestep the issue hahaa. Do no evil, Google! You have the Database of Intentions, and the authority to decide what country belongs to whom, in your hands!

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