Reporter’s Notebook: The late, great science fiction writer Frank Herbert wrote a book for
neophyte computer users in the 1980s called Without Me You’re Nothing. The title referred to the fact that, for all its technical
smarts, a personal computer needed a human operator to accomplish anything.
But in the 21st century it’s the Internet that drives much of what we use a PC for. So instead of Herbert’s title for today’s computer users, how about Without Us You’re Nothing?
The “you’re” in this case refers to Google and its
competitors in the search engine game.
Google has always been an innovative company that has revolutionized the way we use the
Internet and what some still call “personal computing.”
But Google’s never
been about personal computing in the classic “one-person, one-computer”
sense; it’s always been about “collective computing.”
From the very first version of its search engine, Google has relied on
algorithms that measure where the masses go to find their information
The more popular sites in specific areas earn higher results
rankings. So the more users participate, the more
information Google, Yahoo, MSN and other search engines have to work with.
“Google from its inception was based on the intelligence and hard work of
people around the world adding information and structure,” Google co-founder
Larry Page said at a
recent media event.
But Google has been criticized for the lofty claims of its founders that one of
its core principles is to “do no evil.”
I’m not here to say collective
computing is bad or evil, but it does represent a significant next step with
implications I’m not sure most folks have fully grasped.
When soon-to-be Harvard dropout Bill Gates saw a personal computer kit on
the cover of Popular Electronics magazine in the 1970s, he went gaga. Here
was a chance to own your own computer and not have to rely on large
time-sharing systems for a few hours of computer use at a terminal. He and
Paul Allen went on to found Microsoft.
A similar drive hit a young engineer in Silicon Valley named Steve
Wozniak who liked the idea of building his own computer that could fit on a
desktop. With his partner Steve Jobs, Apple Computer was born.
But the whole point of Personal Computing 1.0 was to free users from
having to rely on big systems, which monitored your usage and limited what you
Fast-forward 30 years and we are relying on big systems
to dish out the Web sites we want to see and monitoring our use in exchange
for such “benefits” as context-sensitive ads.
“Certainly Google’s core has been about collecting information and then
getting the relevant information back to users,” said David Card, senior
analyst with JupiterResearch.
“Bill Gates has been talking about ‘information at your fingertips’ for many
years, and we had client/server systems and Sun from its start talking about
the network is the computer,” said Card.
“But it is ironic that we seem to be going from
personal computing, which freed users from time-sharing systems, and now
we’re seeing the emergence of grid computing and other models that keep us
Card added the connected computing model has too much going for it to
“I believe in personal computing, but I know my data is probably safest on
the cloud, in some secure remote server, where it’s also more easily
accessible. There’s a real value in being connected.”
Google’s latest offering, Google Co-op, hopes to leverage the expertise of
its expanding community of users.
The idea behind the new feature, which is in beta, is to get individuals, businesses and other organizations to label
Web pages relevant to their areas of expertise.
Users who then subscribe to
a provider’s content get more relevant search results based on the labels.
Google cites a doctor using Co-op could label what he’s
identified as the best Web pages about arthritis. Anyone who subscribes to
that doctor’s information will get those Web pages at the top of their
results when searching for information on arthritis.
“It’s similar to a food cooperative with a group of people helping each
other out,” said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user
experience at Google.
Clearly there are many benefits to our increasing connectivity. But there is
also the potential for privacy abuses.
Sun chairman Scott McNealy was roundly criticized for his blunt comment back
in 1999 that “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
But McNealy hit dangerously close to the truth.
Google’s dragging the rest of the online industry into what will surely
become standard operating procedure — collecting records of who you are,
where you go and what you do on the Internet.
For better or worse, Google’s vision has always been about the benefits of
collective computing. What’s next?
CEO Eric Schmidt recently told a group of
reporters that his dream search engine would “tell me what I should be
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.