The Database of Intentions

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…

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, contreversies, politics, relationships. It was a way to pick up current culture and hold it in your hand, make sense of it, read it.
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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, supoenaed, 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, entreprenuers 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.

Author: John Battelle

A founder of NewCo (current CEO), sovrn (Chair), Federated Media, Web 2 Summit, The Industry Standard, Wired. Author, investor, board member (Acxiom, Sovrn, NewCo), bike rider, yoga practitioner.

87 thoughts on “The Database of Intentions”

  1. Are you people ASLEEP! George Santayana said [what] in the 19th century about “forgetting the past”? Go to my web site address link:

    relinkz dot com/googlesecrets

    for more information on “Google Secrets”.

    [Special Linking Instructions to the Internet Impaired] Copy & paste the link into your browser’s URL address field, change the word “dot” to a . period, take out all spaces, then hit [Enter] on your keyboard. The rest is academic…

  2. Hi John,

    I am from Europe but had bought your book ‘The Search’, I won’t lie you, just read the half of the book so far… quite busy! but your book in one way or another was my inspiration to keep on thinking of and working further on the search arena … amazing, no more comments… how from such a small start up Google managed to turn into a huge worldwide recognized brand …

    I am currently part of a very exciting and interesting small social search engine called http://NosyJoe.com 🙂 still in closed beta but if you have a couple of free minutes, someday, could you please stop by for a moment and take a quick look at it and give your professional opinion about at info at nosyjoe.com, I’d appreciate. It has recently been mentioned in New York Times at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/24/business/yourmoney/24digi.html

  3. Great social search engine! We have also started a search engine on Gina-Wild.Com

    The engine is presented by the german moviestar
    Gina Wild

    Please take also a quick look at it and give your professional opinion. Thank you very much. Greetings from Germany.

  4. can you tell how much of that traffic comes (for example) from marktplatz-mittelstand.de? (is that part of the remaining 10%?) What do you mean when you say “Linkmaps”?

  5. I am currently part of a very exciting and interesting small social search engine called Toner 🙂 still in closed beta but if you have a couple of free minutes, someday, could you please stop by for a moment and take a quick look at it and give your professional opinion about at info at nosyjoe.com, I’d appreciate.

  6. I am from Europe but had bought your book ‘The Search’, I won’t lie you, just read the half of the book so rollo quite busy! but your book in one way or another was my inspiration to keep on thinking of and working further on the search arena … amazing, no more comments…

  7. John, I recently read your book ‘The Search’ and I found it very powerful and intersting. I would say it is a good primer for anyone interested in Internet Business. It also depicts an interesting journey about how search is pushing technology towards the dream of artificial intelligence, while thousands of small businesses thrive and die by the whims of search engine algorithms.

  8. Just finished your book “Google” and found it fascinating. Many of your 2005/6 comments and predictions have indeed come to fruition. Our newest Tivo forced us to install an update that apparently is nothing more than a refined search based behavioral ad targeting upgrade.

    Thanks for the in depth analysis and behind the scenes look at a company and industry that has unarguably shifted the business model on which successful companies and industries have been run for 100’s of years.

    Drew

  9. Doesn’t building a Database of Intentions violate user rights?

    Marketers would jump on this like vultures on carrion, and that would encourage the database managers to clamp down on the information and auction it off.

    This widens the information (and thus power) gap between marketers and users.

  10. John,

    My group is doing research on studying databases of intentions, aiming to find out to what extent they contain knowledge about common human goals. We found that while users express a broad variety of goals in search query logs, the goals are topically biased compared to other knowledge bases of human intentions. The following article was published at this years K-CAP’09 conference – it might be of interest to readers of your blog:

    M. Strohmaier, M. Kroell, Studying Databases of Intentions: Do Search Query Logs Capture Knowledge about Common Human Goals?, The Fifth International Conference on Knowledge Capture (K-CAP’09), Sep 1-4, Redondo Beach, California, USA, 2009.

    http://kmi.tugraz.at/staff/markus/documents/2009_K-CAP_Goal_Acquisition_from_Search_Query_Logs.pdf

    Markus

  11. I read your blog and just by reading what you said I have a very different view on the internet and the core value of it and how much of a difference it has made to peoples lives.

    Thank you for opening my eyes.

  12. “Marketers would jump on this like vultures on carrion”

    I don’t understand these privacy fanatics. So what if a marketer knows I’ve got three kids and sends me ads about people movers? I’m a big boy. I can deal with this. It’s better than sending me ads about make-up or sanitary protection.

    My really private stuff I keep to myself. I don’t care if Google deduces my demographic profile.

    There are much more important things to worry about than whether Google knows that I like red wine.

  13. I loved your statement
    “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)”

    It is so very true in every way. I was speaking with a group of my co-worker’s the other day about how most of my knowldge has come from google, yahoo, etc.
    I would honestly be lost without those tools that are available to us now days.

    GREAT ARTICLE 🙂

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