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Search and Immortality

By - September 19, 2013

google.cover.inddFunny thing, there I was two days ago, at Google’s annual conference, watching Larry Page get asked questions so pliant in nature they couldn’t be called softballs. They were more like tee balls – little round interrogatives gingerly placed on a plastic column for Page to swat out into the crowd. Not that we would expect anything else – to be clear, this is Google’s event, and I see nothing wrong with Google scripting its own event. I had moderated the final session of the day, but Larry was the final speaker. Perhaps wisely, Google brought  someone else on to “grill” Page – those were his words as the interview started. (You be the judge –  a sample question: “What are your thoughts about tablets in schools?”)

Anyway, I was certainly not the right choice to talk to Larry. I know the folks at Google well, and have tons of respect for them. We both know I would have insisted on asking about a few things that were, well, in the news at the moment of that interview on Tuesday. Like, for example, the fact that Google, on the very next day, was going to announce the launch of Calico, a company seeking to solve that “moonshot” problem of aging. Oh, and by the way, current Apple Chair and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson was going to be CEO, reporting to Page. Seems like pretty interesting news, no? And yet, Larry kept mum about it during the interview. Wow. That’s some serious self control.

And yet I think I understand – each story has its own narrative, and this one needed room to breathe. You don’t want to break it inside an air-conditioned ballroom in front of your most important clients. You want to make sure it gets on the cover of Time (which it did), and that the news gets at least a few days to play through the media’s often tortured hype cycle. It’s grinding its way through that cycle now, and I’m sure we’ll see comparisons to everything from Kurzweil (who now works at Google) to Bladerunner, and beyond.

But what I was reminded of was the very end of my book on search, some 8 years ago. I was trying to put the meaning of search into context, and I found myself returning again and again to the concept of immortality.  This was my epilogue, which I offer here as perhaps some context for Google’s announcement this week:

“Search and Immortality”

On a fine sunny morning in 2003, not long after the birth of my third and most likely final child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button. I can’t explain why I turned to a search engine for metaphysical comfort, but I sensed the search might lead me somewhere—here I was writing a book about search, but what did it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things?

In an instant, Google took me to the Immortality Institute, an organization dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white.

Nothing really caught my eye. Cryonics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc., pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen. There were four ads, each no more than three lines of text. The first was someone who claimed to have met immortal ETs. Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo Shopping. These megasites had purchased the immortality keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might well find relief through . . . buying shit online. (In fact, what Yahoo and eBay were doing was the equivalent of search arbitrage— buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own sites, in the hope of capturing high-value customers).

Interesting, but I wasn’t looking to buy the concept of immortality; I wanted to understand it. I took a pass on those as well. But the second paid link pointed to the epic Gilgamesh, which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down—in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served. I clicked on the link, earning Google a few pennies in the process, and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. My search was bearing fruit. But I didn’t want to buy a book and wait for it to come. I was in the moment of discovery, the heat of possible consummation. I wanted to read that epic, right now.1 So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options.

But this time the organic results (the search results in the middle of a Google page, as opposed to the ads on the right) nailed it: the first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State University professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story. It read:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 b.c. Although historians . . . tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on  Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 b.c. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive . . . written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets . . . found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, 669–633 b.c., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 b.c., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author in the history of Western civilization. Thanks to the speed, vastness, and evanescent power of Google, I came to know his name and his work within thirty seconds of proffering a vaguely worded query. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind. Through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, he had, in a sense, become immortal.

But wait! There’smore. Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism—the destruction of a great king’s library. As I contemplated all of this, sensing that, just possibly, I had found a way to explain why search was so important to our culture.

I read the first tablet’s opening lines:

The one who saw all (Sha nagba imuru) I will declare to the world, The one who knew all I will tell about [line missing] He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood. He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, And then carved his story on stone.

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay—or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the Web? Is that not what every person longs for—what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality— to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint: is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern-day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For anyone who has ever written his own name into a search box and anxiously awaited the results, I believe the answer is yes.

Something to think about, anyway. Good luck, Mr. Levinson and Mr. Page. I’m cheering you on, even if I can’t quite explain why. Maybe it’s that missing line from Gilgamesh we’re all trying to find….

*Hat tip to one of my editors Bill Brazell, for pinging me as I was writing this about this very news.

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