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else 10.28: “Merging with the technology”

By - October 28, 2013

This week in our news round up: artists play with the possibilities of the 3-D printing medium, the lines between the digital world and the physical world of drones and dating blur, and Silicon Valley is getting more overtly political. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Artists Take Up Digital Tools – NYTimes
“Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York explores 3-D printers as tools for new art. “In recent years I’ve seen a shift in thinking from ‘What can the machine do?’ versus ‘How can I use this as part of the tool kit to achieve what I want to do?’ ” The New Yorker has a nice slideshow.

3-D Printed Untitled #5 by Richard Dupont at “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital.”

There Is No Difference Between Online and ‘Real-Life’ Dating – NYMag
The line between online and offline is blurring as we all use the internet as a tool for meeting and staying in touch with people.

Confessions of a Drone Warrior – GQ
This personal account from retired Predator drone pilot has got us more emotionally involved in the ethical concerns around drone warfare and its human impacts.

Thousands gather in Washington for anti-NSA ‘Stop Watching Us’ rally – The Guardian
Protesters from the right, left, and center come together to protest mass surveillance.

Silicon Valley Attempts to Install Its First Federal Candidate – Valleywag
Congressional candidate Ro Khanna signals Silicon Valley’s foray into fixing government inefficiencies.

Is Google building a hulking floating data center in SF Bay? – CNET
Highly speculative, but could Google be working on a floating data center? This is both technically and politically interesting, given surging libertarian interest in seasteading.

Why Facebook Is Teaching Its Machines to Think Like Humans – Wired
“Deep learning” algorithms try to parse vernacular language to find more meaning in phrases like “off the hook.” On Facebook, all the language data is there, we just need better means to make sense of it.

Where Humans Will Always Beat the Robots – The Atlantic
MIT’s Rob Miller believes that for certain kinds of tasks, humans will always be better than machines. But he’s using computing scale to crowdsource those tasks with Mechanical Turk.

Automatic’s quantified car device debuts in Apple stores – Gigaom
Placing this data pulling device in Apple retail stores brings automotive stats–and quantified driving–to the masses.

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What Do Drones Mean for Humanity?

By - October 23, 2013

predator-firing-missile4(Image) One of the “artifacts” that Sara and I are paying close attention to as we work on the book is “the drone.” Drones ply the liminal space between the physical and the digital – pilots fly them, but aren’t in them. They are versatile and fascinating objects – the things they can do range from the mundane (aerial photography) to the spectacular – killing people, for example. And when drones kill – well, what does it mean, to destroy life, but to not be physically present while doing it?

Until today, drone warfare for me has been a largely intellectual concept: I followed the political and social issues closely, but I avoided emotional engagement – most likely because I knew I hadn’t quite worked out my point of view on the ethical issues. But after reading Matthew Power’s Confessions of a Drone Warrior, I can no longer say I’m not emotionally involved.

The article profiles Brandon Bryant, a retired Airman  trained to pilot Predator drones above Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant’s story frames all that we’re struggling with as a nation, as citizens, and as human beings when it comes to this new technology. As Powers writes:

…the very idea of drones unsettles. They’re too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties—the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we’ve slipped into a dystopia of disconnection. Maybe it’s too soon to know what drones mean, what unconsidered moral and ethical burdens they carry. Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

Bryant understood that his job probably saved lives, on balance, but over time his ambivalence grew.

Often he’d think about what life must be like in those towns and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now.

By the time he left the service, Bryant had aided in killing, or directly killed, more than 1600 human beings. That’s a heavy burden. He fell apart, and was diagnosed with PTSD. I found this passage particularly difficult to internalize:

Forty-two percent of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.” A later study found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews. These effects appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)

Existential conflict. I think there’s a very important concept to explore in those two words, one that is highlighted by the proposed remedy: To give technology – a non human actor – the agency of a human being, so that we can transfer the conflict we feel about killing to a machine.

It makes me wonder how much of that we do in everyday life already, on a far less dramatic scale. In any case, it’s clear that killer drones are not going away. The real question is how we as a society will internalize what they mean for our humanity. Bravo to GQ for publishing such a thought provoking piece of journalism. And to Bryant for being willing to speak out.

else 10.21: Are Drones Over Burning Man “Evil”?

By - October 21, 2013

This week we pondered how Google defines norms, how we understand ourselves through technology, and how our present technical reality moves faster than speculative fiction.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

What Is ‘Evil’ to Google? – The Atlantic
Ian Bogost asks “what counts as ‘good things,’ and who constitutes ‘the world?'” according to Google’s norms, values, and ideas of progress

Quadcopter demos in the desert. (Fast Company)

The Drones Of Burning Man – Fast Company
Was Burning Man the test bed for how drone flight might be regulated elsewhere? Complete with some great images of hobbiest drones from the festival.

Think You Can Live Offline Without Being Tracked? Here’s What It Takes – Fast Company
The lengths we have to go to now, even in the physical world, to live outside the data-tracked world.

My Selfie, Myself – New York Times
How we come to know and express ourselves through technology. And taken to the artistic end, we have a National #Selfie Gallery.

What Life Will Be Like in the Cities of the Future – Time
As more sensors give us real time feedback, how do our urban environments change and adapt?

10 Things I Think I Think on Bitcoin – David Lee
Bitcoin points to an emerging “multipolar” global economic system, and first mover standards (like TCP/IP and SMTP were) seem like a good bet.

7 Supposedly Futuristic Technologies From Dave Eggers’s The Circle That Already Exist – The Atlantic
The artifacts of the future are already here, it’s not just speculative fiction. Sorry, Eggers.

 

A World Lit, Literally, By Data

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data bulbsAs you work on a book, even one as slow to develop as if/then, certain catch phrases develop. People ask you what the book is about, or the shape of its core argument, and some of the descriptions start to stand out and  hit home. One of those is “a world lit by data,” an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. It’s a metaphor that’s not entirely worked out, but it seems to get the job done – it paints a picture of a time when everything of value around us – everything we “see” – has a component of data to it. In a world lit by data, street corners are painted with contextual information, automobiles can navigate autonomously, thermostats respond to patterns of activity, and retail outlets change as rapidly (and individually) as search results from Google.

The tortured bit of the metaphor is in asking you, the reader, to believe that we will live in spaces full of data, just as we live in spaces filled with light (be it natural or man made). Everyone understands the idea of light as metaphor. But data? Well, to my mind, they are quite connected. Without light, we can’t (easily) take in information about our physical surroundings. In darkness there is far less data. Equating “light” with “data” isn’t too much of a stretch.

Now, the interplay of light and “information” is dangerous but well-trodden ground. After all, in the Old Testament, the first thing God did after creating the physical (Heavens and Earth) was to turn on the lights. And after further contemplation, Christians decided that before Light, there was The Word, which was God’s will made flesh (John 1). Since then, of course, “the word” has come to mean, well, encoded information, or data. Loosely put (and I know I’m on thin ice here) – first we establish the physicality of that which we don’t fully understand, then we bathe it in light, hoping to understand it the best we can.

Given this metaphor, it was fun to see this headline in Quartz: A plan to turn every lightbulb into an ultra-fast alternative to Wi-Fi. The recent “li-fi” spec sends data utilizing the same frequency as light – literally, it uses a light bulb as a carrier of information. Seems my “world lit by data” metaphor is getting quite real, indeed.

 

 

else 10.14: “Drones don’t feel” – But the people who see them do.

By - October 14, 2013

Between OpenCo, the Quantified Self conference, and our visit to Google, it was a busy week for the book. From around the web: drones get the critical treatment, sensors develop new capabilities, the internet of things gets more connected, and our twitter streams start speaking for themselves.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Granny peace brigade anti-drone protesters at #droneconf via kimgittleson Instagram

At Drone Conference, Talk of Morals and Toys – NYTimes
Hobbyists and ethicists came together in New York to talk drones this weekend. The lineup ranged from aerial demos to policy debates.

The Latest Smartphones Could Turn Us All Into Activity Trackers – Wired
The M7 coprocessor in the new iPhone 5S brings low-battery consumption activity tracking to the masses, turning the device in your pocket into a tracker. But does that mean we’re all quantified selves when we as a cost of using smart phones?

MIT’s ‘Kinect of the future’ looks through walls with X-ray like vision – IT World
Simply using the reflections off the human body, this tool can pinpoint a body’s location within ten centimeters. Through a wall.

G.E.’s ‘Industrial Internet’ Goes Big – NYTimes
A big announcement plants more sensors in more places, with the promise of optimizing industries with more data.

Free Software Ties the Internet of Things Together – MIT Technology Review
OpenRemote offers the connections between smart devices, making it easier and cheap to manage a smart home.

Enough with the Trolley problem, already – Brad Ideas
After our ride in the self-driving car at Google last week, we’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics stories that get told. Brad Templeton is tired of the same, played out hypothetical.

A Twitter Account After One’s Own Tweets – The New Yorker
Twitter bots live on after @horse_ebooks with @tofu_product, an account that mimics the “flavor” of your own tweets.

Samsung Galaxy Gear: A Long Time Coming – YouTube
From Dick Tracy to the Power Rangers, Samsung’s ad for the Gear smart watch brings back our retro-futuristic nostalgia for calling base from our wrists.

 

Google Now: The Tip of A Very Long Spear

By - October 09, 2013

Yesterday my co-author and I traveled down to Google, a journey that for me has become something of a ritual. We met with the comms team for Google X, tested Google Glass, and took a spin in a self-driving car. And while those projects are fascinating and worthy of their own posts (or even chapters in the book), the most interesting meeting we had was with Johanna Wright, VP on the Android team responsible for Google Now.

Some of you might respond – “Google what?!” – and that’d be normal. Google Now is one of those products that to many users doesn’t seem like a product at all. It is instead the experience one has when you use the Google Search application on your Android or iPhone device (it’s consistently a top free app on the iTunes charts). You probably know it as Google search, but it’s far, far more than that. It’s the tip of a very important spear for Google, and if you study its architecture, all manner of interesting questions and insights can be found about where Google – and the Internet – may be headed.

When you fire up the Google search application on your phone, Google Now is all the bits that are not the familiar search bar. Here’s a screen shot of my Google Now “home page”:

gnow

As you can see, the search bar, which in a PC format is usually the *only* thing one sees, is most certainly not the main event. Certainly it’s at the top, and voice search is prominently featured (I could write 1,000 words just on voice search…another time, perhaps). But, the screen is dominated by “cards” of information – in this case a reminder of a call I have coming up (Google Now integrates with my calendar and contacts), as well as information about my drive home (Google Now knows I usually drive home in the afternoon). If I were to scroll down, more “cards” of information are shown, including local weather, points of interest, and sports scores (when the SF Giants were playing this past summer, I’d see scores – because Google Now knew I searched for “SF Giants scores” a lot).

These cards are extremely important to understanding where Google is heading with not only search, but with all of its various services (the card interface is now incorporated into Google’s “knowledge graph” search results, Google+, Gmail, and Google Maps, among many others). First, the cards “know” things about me – most critically my location, but also my search history, my calendar and contacts, my browsing history, key links in my Gmail, and more. They show up based on what interests and needs that Google believes will be most important to me. In essence, they are very tangible expressions of Google’s pivot from being a company that answers search queries, to being a company that anticipates your most important questions in real time, and answers them before you ask.

This, of course, has been the holy grail of tech  for some time – predating Google and even Microsoft. But now that rich data streams course constantly through the silicon veins of a very personal mobile device, that long-held vision is becoming reality.

In short, Now is Google’s attempt at becoming the real time interface to our lives – moving well beyond the siloed confines of “search” and into the far more ambitious world of “experience.” As in – every experience one has could well be lit by data delivered through Google Now.

Google knows that this moment – the moment of our lives becoming data – is happening now, and the company is very, very focused on seizing it.

If you doubt my hyperbole, I’d not be surprised, but I tend to test such hyperbole on multiple senior sources working deeply inside Google. To each I posited this question: “Is Google Now one of the most important products  at Google today?” Each answered emphatically yes.

To see why, consider this message, which popped up on my screen as I was preparing to write this post:

share daily commute

This is Google, asking me if I’d like to let selected people know where I am, in real time, during my daily commute. Of course, I can only share that status with people who are also Google+ users (no option to share on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc) – and that’s my point. First, questions like these are habituating us to the idea of sharing intimate information about ourselves with others, in real time. Second, a feature like this is *only* available to Google Now because of its integration with Google+ – one platform is reinforcing the other. Will Google let others play in this sandbox? Such a feature raises a very important question about what kind of world we want to live in – a world dominated by tightly integrated vertical platforms, or a world, as David Weinberger elegantly stated it, made up of small pieces loosely joined?

It was this question that weighed on my mind as I sat down with Johanna Wright yesterday. Since introducing Google Now (and the extremely related Google Knowledge Graph), the company has introduced more than 40 cards – cards for hotels, car rentals, and other travel information (like boarding passes), cards for movies, events, music and local businesses, cards tracking your activity (like walking, biking, etc.), and cards for nearby restaurants. There’s even a card that listens to your TV and tells you what music is playing.

Sound familiar? It should, because, to put it in words we can all understand: There’s an app for that. Or rather, there are apps for each of those. Let me list just a few of them, in order what what I laid out above: Hotel Tonight, Expedia, Lyft, Sidecar, Travelocity; Fandango, NetFlix, Hulu, iTunes, Spotify, Eventful, Yelp, Foursquare; Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Fuelband, Human; OpenTable, Urban Spoon; Shazam.

Google Now supplants the need to open an app by surfacing cards – cards that magically turn into just the information you need, when you need it – *without having to go to an app to get it.*

You following where this is going? Google is potentially disrupting the app world much the way its Universal Search disrupted major web properties  – taking the most valuable service or information, and surfacing it up for free. You may recall that universal search was quite controversial when it came out, because it appeared to favor surfacing Google-owned properties, such as YouTube, Finance, and Maps, over other web properties. Now, six years later, Universal search is, well universal, and that debate, which included an FTC investigation,  is over. Google properties won.

It’s worth noting that a key product manager for Universal Search was Johanna Wright, now the VP over Google Now. With all this in mind, I asked Wright about Google’s plans for Now: Would it be an open platform, where third parties can compete to be surfaced based on merit, or would favored services win out? And would various commercial products and services be able to pay to get integrated into Now’s suggestions and services?

Wright was understandably careful with her words when approaching this question. She declined to talk about monetization and business models for Now, but she did note that Google’s overall philosophy was one that favored the open web. The key, she said, was that Google get the user experience for Now right. The business model will come later (though she did note that Google Offers was already integrated into Now).

While Wright deferred comment on Now’s business model, I have no doubts there are plenty of folks inside Google thinking long and hard about the next steps the company will take to monetize Wright’s work. For now (no pun intended), Google Now is, in the main, a closed platform – surfacing only information that Google has deemed worthy of being surfaced, and integrating on a selective basis with only those services that Google believes will add value its consumers  (Google’s restaurant card, for example, integrates with OpenTable). Just as it did with search, Google is angling to control a key moment of a person’s daily life and attention – the point at which we lift our phone up to receive new information. When and if Google Now become ubiquitous, I can certainly imagine that the question of access and fairness will once again be raised. This movie, it seems, is fated to play out once again.

else 10.7: A Dread Pirate Gives Up His Bitcoins

By - October 06, 2013

Anonymity on the web becomes increasingly fractious as Tor and Bitcoin come into question with recent headline-grabbing stories. A quick scan of this weekend’s NYTimes reveals three big articles on the novel ways our digital histories stay with us. Clearly, our story has come to the fore.

This week, we’re also looking forward this coming week’s OpenCo and the Quantified Self global conference, both in San Francisco. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

The Dread Pirate Roberts, AKA Ross William Ulbricht, may suffer from the seedy reputation of the Silk Road, but as goes Silk Road, so go more legitimate uses of online anonymity.

FBI’s Case Against Silk Road Boss Is A Fascinating Read – Techdirt
The capture and revelation of dramatic details of the Ulbricht’s Silk Road drug trafficking website has called into question both legitimate and seedy uses of anonymous technologies like Tor and Bitcoin. NSA and GCHQ target Tor network that protects anonymity of web users – The Guardian
Tor, a routing system that masks traffic through a network of relaying nodes, isn’t safe from government spying. The latest Guardian NSA piece describes measures designed to peel ‘back the layers of Tor with EgotisticalGiraffe.’

How a Purse Snatching Led to the Legal Justification for NSA Domestic Spying – Wired
The unlikely story behind the precedent for monitoring metadata with a “pen register” illustrates how our technical systems outpace or legal means for dealing with them.

When Meta Met Data – NYTimes
There was a time when “meta” meant something self-referential and funny. This is a thoughtful take on cultural shifts as we begin to understand what our metadata says about us.

Rage Against the Algorithms - The Atlantic
“Algorithms, driven by vast troves of data, are the new power brokers in society, both in the corporate world as well as in government.” Makes the case for journalists and others to reverse-engineer these black boxes to better understand how they work and to develop algorithmic accountability.

Selling Secrets of Phone Users to Advertisers – NYTimes
Getting beyond cookies to bridge ad experiences across all connected devices, from desktop to tablet to phone.

Mugged by a Mug Shot Online – NYTimes
The business of reputation management is lucrative for these exploitative sites with high SEO ranking that bring up mugshots, long after you’ve been cleared.

Deciding Who Sees Students’ Data  – NYTimes
Systems for managing and tracking students’ progress offer great potential in personalizing education, but we’re still figuring out where more student data is appropriately applied and used.

Living with Data: Personal Data Uses of the Quantified Self - Sara M. Watson
I posted my thesis on the Quantified Self in full for those interested: “As Big Data becomes standard practice and more sensors enter into our homes, cars,devices, and bodies, data proliferates. This will happen whether or not we are actively engaged in the creation and uses of data. As such, we are all becoming quantified selves. We have a responsibility in this emerging data environment to recognize and engage with this fact. If we ignore this reality, we risk losing our agency.”

else 9.30: The “Monkeys with Typewriter” Algorithm

By - September 30, 2013

This week, the blind see with data, algorithms are uncovered, networks are analyzed, and data remains siloed. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Disruptions: Visually Impaired Turn to Smartphones to See Their World – NYTimes
Assistive technologies in smart phones help the blind read the world as data.

Eulogy for a Horse – Dan Sinker
Susan Orlean broke that the @horse_ebooks twitter account that tweeted seemingly random selections from books is not a bot, but performance art. The internet got up in arms about the revelation, mostly because it disrupted our desire to believe that there was beauty in algorithms and randomness. Dan Sinker (of @MayorEmanuel parody twitter account fame) offers some final thoughts for his “monkey Shakespeare.”

Goodbye, dear programmatic poet. We believed in you.

Google Alters Search to Handle More Complex Queries – NYTimes
Search gets semantic as Google quietly replaces keyword based search algorithms with Hummingbird, which understands context.

Facebook Launches Advanced AI Effort to Find Meaning in Your Posts – MIT Technology Review
Facebook introduces “deep learning,” or more advanced machine learning and AI, to uncover more meaning in all our data.

N.S.A. Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens – NYTimes
As we might have expected, the NSA is conducting social network analysis or “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata.” Immersion is still a great tool for visualizing and understanding what your own metadata social graph looks like.

NSA Internet Spying Sparks Race to Create Offshore Havens for Data Privacy – WSJ.com
As trust in US-based internet companies falters, international alternatives jump at the opportunity and compete on local law.

The Extremely Quantified Self: Meet Rachel Kalmar, Who Wears 21 Fitness Trackers at the Same Time (Video) – AllThingsD
Kalmar suggests that even as she collects so much data, it’s all locked up in proprietary silos. This is a recurring theme in the world of personal data that I’ll explore further in a breakout session at the upcoming Quantified Self conference.

From Anonymous to Bitcoin, The Good Wife Is the Most Tech-Savvy Show on TV – Wired Opinion
Clive Thompson shares his enthusiasm for responsible and nuanced depictions of technology in fiction as they shape the way we see the world. Adding The Good Wife to the Netflix queue…

else 9.23: From “Pulp to Prototype” and Other Good Reads

By - September 22, 2013

This week we’ve been thinking a lot about driverless cars and related data-driven innovations in transportation. (We even saw one up close this week at Google Zeitgeist.) We looked at Google’s newest effort to extend life with data in its new company, Calico. We thought about the relationship between science fiction and technological development, and we’re excited about a new crop of literary takes on tech industry.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

 

How a self-driving car sees the world, Popsci.

Inside Google’s Quest To Popularize Self-Driving Cars – Popular Science
A long-read look at the current state of Google’s driverless car program.

Tesla’s Elon Musk says self-driving cars will be produced by 2016 – Daily Mail
Will healthy competition drive innovation? Tesla throws down the gauntlet with a tighter timeline to put driverless cars on the road.

A Self-Driving Crash Test – Stanford Center for Internet and Society
Bryant Walker Smith poses an interesting hypothetical for tackling fuzzy questions about liability in driverless car accidents.

California finally legalizes Lyft, SideCar, and other rideshare app firms – Ars Technica
California Public Utilities Commission legitimizes ridesharing, setting standards requiring background checks, driver training, and insurance coverage, so expect to see more pink mustashes on the road.

TIME Talks to Google CEO Larry Page About Its New Venture to Extend Human Life – TIME
Google’s Calico aims to use data to extend human life. John was reminded of the end of The Search on Google and the question of immortality.

Digital Advertising Alliance Exits Do Not Track Group – Adweek
Might this be the end of Do Not Track efforts? Multistakeholderism is at an impasse.

Science Fiction shapes the way we think about technology.

Why Today’s Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction – The Atlantic
An MIT Media Lab course “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication” aims to connect visions for the near future with the makers and builders realizing our technological future. “Reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors.”

Project Hieroglyph – Future Tense
This podcast introduces a center for connecting writers and scientists in an effort to inspire science fiction with a more optimistic take.

The Deepest of Webs – Faz
Evgeny Morozov reviews Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which came out this week. It takes place in the tech scene in New York in the period between the dot com bust and before 9/11.

Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’ Takes Vengeance on Google, Facebook – Wall Street Journal
Egger’s new novel tackles the tech giants head on.

Did Dave Eggers ‘Rewrite’ Kate Losse’s Book? – The Atlantic Wire
Truth is stranger than fiction it seems, because Eggers new book sounds a lot like Kate Losse‘s The Boy Kings, based on her experience as employee number 51 at Facebook. Guess we’ll have to read both now.

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.