The sun rose gloriously over the hill. A few wisps of fog floated down by the creek and there was just the tiniest bit of frost on the tulips. What a good day, I thought, to consider Google. I don't know for certain that Google is now evil, but I bet that if it isn't it soon will be. No one has ever survived possession of that much power without slipping over to the dark side.
Actually, the discussion of Google had come up a few days earlier, when a colleague mentioned the eternal topic of school kids doing research for term papers. Her daughter had been assigned a comprehensive paper and had little time to gather information and write it.
There are persons alive today who would tell you that in the days when electric light was new and incandescent such an assignment would involve going to a place called a library wherein were shelves and shelves of items known as books. These were carefully sorted, and there was a small cabinet containing a listing of the books — it was called a “card catalog” — which would help a student select which books were most likely to contain information that could help fill a term paper. Armed with the knowledge of the titles and location in the library of particular books, the young scholar could then go to the appropriate shelf and confirm that every book on the subject had already been checked out by another student.
The now-sweating student would go home and complain that the book was not available. The parent would then admonish the child for failing to have gotten started earlier on the paper. Thus was the student educated as to how in time of need even one's own parents might not be counted upon for comfort and support.
Those dismal days are gone, though. Now the child does not have to go to the library in order to fall behind. Procrastination has become computerized and no longer carries a penalty or, for that matter, a lesson.
But I digress.
Thanks to the Internet and powerful online programs called “search engines,” we can all learn everything known, suspected, rumored, or just flat made up about any subject known to humankind. Years ago when there was much less Internet there were far more search engines. My favorite was one called “InfoSeek,” because it tended, in technical terms, to cut through the crap. It got bought up by the Walt Disney company and then became part of something called “Go,” which suggests it now is primarily for those seeking information about laxatives — useful in a search engine possessing aforementioned technical strength. One by one the others were mostly closed or absorbed, leaving pretty much only Google.
But the Internet is now huge and, despite the very clever (some, me among them, would say fiendish) programming employed by Google in keeping it sorted out, it is not always easy to find what you want by typing a few words into the Google box in your Internet browsing program.
My colleague had helped her daughter by showing her how to refine the words typed into that box. Those words form what are called “search terms,” and the proper combination of them will make Google give you a list of things you're looking for — in the fashion of the old card catalog. Except that now no one else will have checked out the book, because many people can view the same website; thus has variety been excised from teachers' days. Change a word or two in your search terms and a whole new list of possibilities, which may be what you seek, or maybe not, appears. So there is a certain Zen to using Google. It cannot be taught. It can be gained only by getting into Google's electro-mechanical head — learning to think the way it thinks. (Much the same thing applies to troubleshooting computers in general; the most frequent explanation of how a hardware or software problem was solved is, “I dunno — I just did some stuff and then it worked.”)
It is the one area of computer use in which grownups have more skill than kids, and we should cleave tightly to that advantage lest we become of no use at all.
The problem is, Google aspires to know everything. Knowledge is control. Give Google the right search terms and almost anything known will soon be on your computer screen. Now much mail is “gmail” — living on Google's servers. Google offers online office programs, and storage of your private and business documents. Our privacy is in many ways determined by the benevolence of Google. Woe to us when Google goes bad.
There already signs that it will. They came when Microsoft Corporation created a supposed competitor to Google, called “Bing.” (It had already used “Bob” as the name for a childish front-end to its Windows cartoon operating system; it could be revived, I suppose, and paired with Bing in a movie, “The Road to Hell”.)
Microsoft's involvement alone, though, is cause for alarm. For whenever there is potential for evil control of our computers and our minds, Microsoft will be there, saying, “We want a piece of that!”
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.