So nothing really new in the news today, I wanted to take a graf or two and explain what I mean by The Database of Intentions, referred to in this post. That way I can use it again and again and just link the phrase to this post. Hey, we love the web, Ted Nelson lives….
The Database of Intentions is an idea central to the book I’ve been working on for the past year or so, which is tentatively titled “The Search: Business and Culture in the Age of Google” (Penguin/Putnam/Portfolio 2004). As with many in this industry, it all started with the Macintosh. Back in the mid 80s I was an undergraduate in Cultural Antropology, and I had a class – taught by the late Jim Deetz,which focused on the idea of material culture – basically, interpreting the artifacts of everyday life. It took the tools of archaeology – usually taught only in the context of civilizations long dead – and merged them with the tools of Cultural Anthropology, which interpreted living cultures. He encouraged us to see all things modified by man as expressions of culture, and therefore as keys to understanding culture itself. I began to see language, writing, and most everyday things in a new light – as reflecting the culture which created them, and fraught with all kinds of intent, controversies, politics, relationships. It was a way to pick up current culture and hold it in your hand, make sense of it, read it.
At the same time I was making extra money beta testing some software on a brand spanking new Mac, vintage 1984. Anthropology and technology merged, and I became convinced that the Mac represented mankind’s most sophisticated and important artifact ever – a representation of the plastic mind made visible. (Yeah, college – exhaaaaale – wasn’t it great!).
Anyway, the idea that a graphical user interface and, later, a network connecting many GUIs, could provide a medium between many minds drove much of my fascination with reporting on technology, from MacWeek to Wired to The Standard to now. The “Mac as the greatest artifact” meme became one of my standard riffs, from discussions with potential writers at Wired, to discussions with partners at The Standard. The idea that we could better understand ourselves by looking at how we employ technology was and remains the driving force of my work as a journalist.
This is all a long-winded way of saying, I’ve now come to the conclusion that humankind has created a far more fascinating and important artifact, one that surpasses the Macintosh (and its badly drawn descendant, Windows). And before you roll your eyes and say “Oh God, not the Internet…”, no, it’s not the Internet. It’s something that is a product of the Internet, what I call the Database of Intentions.
The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular hold a massive amount of this data (ie MSN, Google, and Yahoo). This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind – a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion.
Once I grokked this idea (late 2001/early 2002), my head began to hurt. This was A Big Idea, one that certainly was not new (I edited this piece in 1995), but my comprehension of it was new; and it explained the recent surge in paid listings as a successful advertising vehicle – the first truly robust commercial exploitation of the Database of Intentions.
So I decided to focus on this idea in book form. I started looking around for folks who understood these ideas better than I did, and I found many – an entire industry of people devoted to search , and a subset of academics, writers, entrepreneurs and visionaries engaged in the exploration of this idea and its implications. The goal of my book, then, is to tell the story of this idea, and how it drove the rise of computing, the internet (and the bubble), and where it might be going. Clearly Google will play an important role, but I’m not out to write yet another boring and opportunistic book about today’s hot company. I’m just starting the writing, and reporting continues apace. And if you’ve managed to read all the way down to this point, I hope you will join the conversation.