Internet: We need a Euro-Google
9 August 2011
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
What you can look up, you needn’t commit to memory. This old maxim is one that drives Google's business today. But the Internet revolution is still in its infancy, and soon the material of our everyday lives could be fodder for search engines. We should be cautious about what we hand over, warns FAZ. Excerpts.
A few weeks ago Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, gave a memorable speech. “In 2029,” Schmidt predicted, “you will be able to buy eleven petabytes of digital storage on a single hard drive for less than $100. This device, by my reckoning, will be able to store 24 hours of DVD-quality video every single day for six hundred years.” That’s enough for an entire lifetime from cradle to grave – with room for future generations, too.
A very faint tremor started today, and we should take Schmidt very seriously when he says that the Internet age has only just begun. The question that no one has yet answered is: why should people do this, and want to do this? Why, for example, would they record their lives? Social communication is only part of the answer. Age-old human experience tells us that only what is remembered has really happened.
Firstly, Sparrow and her colleagues are not talking about the internet. They’re talking about search engines. Which means, really, that they’re talking about Google. Essentially, the researchers discovered that using Google to look things up leads us not to learn or remember things better, but rather to learn better where we can find what we want to know. Subjects who were told that quite banal information on their computers would no longer be stored but deleted remembered that information better than when they were left to assume that the computer would keep everything for them.
The outsourcing of our knowledge into the web, in short, corresponds to outsourcing our memory to the web – precisely what the Google chiefs have always declared to be their true vision and their business model. Why should we be upset by this? It's the way it is, and it’s the way it was even more often in the past – think of Socrates’s polemic against writing as the destroyer of memory. Mankind has been outsourcing knowledge and memory for ever. In the magazine c't Jürgen Kuri quoted his old teacher’s adage: “If you can look it up, you don’t need to commit it to memory”. The externalisation of knowledge takes place in every library.
But this way of reading overlooks something important. Up till now, storage systems have stored the past; one can even say that they have ‘created’ the past. It’s not just advertising rates for newspapers that have always been set by the limiting factor of paper: the storage of knowledge has too. It gave that storage a material value -- in a sense, like that of banknotes -- even if the printed content in the end was good for nothing.
Now, when for $100 you can save 600 years in real time, things are different. The value of information no longer lies in the information itself. It lies in how it is networked. Google’s omniscience is not literary, but social. It is not just knowledge, but knowledge about the use of knowledge, which in turn changes the nature of knowledge for good. The outsourcing of the memory of mankind to a private American company concerns not only what one holds in black and white, but also everything that, through the interplay of memory and experience, creates human identity in the first place. This knowledge, not just Goethe’s colour theory, is what Google is organising.
Google is not only taking over the storing of factual knowledge. For the first time in human history, it is also taking over the computation, organisation and interpretation of the associations we create when we use this knowledge. This is probably the sole purpose of a fascinating operation that computes exactly how long a cursor hovers undecidedly over a road in Google Earth, a cursor which had previously clicked on casinos using Google Search.
Imagine a head librarian at the Berlin State Library who could not only cross-reference the contents of all his millions of books, but could also know how much time readers spent over every sentence in every book, which texts they read and which ones they skimmed, what questions they asked themselves and what questions they might ask him. Soon he'd come to know the associations of ideas in the minds of his readers, and could use them to augment the knowledge that he managed and organised.
This is no longer the outsourcing of memory, but rather its substitution. And because it is very efficient and saves the reader a lot of time (since the chief librarian does indeed shares a certain part of his knowledge with the users, even if what he shares is only what's already known and available), we all happily go along with it. We pay the price gladly. After all, it’s stimulating to clean out the brain and to make more room for other things.
But for what exactly? It's not just a question of forgetting the year Kant was born or the best way to bake a cheesecake. What impact will outsourcing our social and associative recall have on our identities? What would it mean if, so to speak, GPS route planners were given to us for our entire lives, planners that freed us from the effort of memory and replaced that with something else?
Specialists usually nip this kind of debate in the bud quite quickly. We’re told, patronisingly, that technological advances are never held back by such worries. But that still doesn’t answer the most pressing question of our times: what is the political and social power of a search engine? How great is the power of these things, in which people place so much trust that they are willing to sacrifice their own memory? Today, true knowledge lies in the hands of one mega-corporation, or three if we count Apple and Facebook as well. What would it mean if the chief librarian were never to tell us what the really relevant issues of the day were: the conclusions that he draws from our readings, our relationships, our consumption, our lives? What is it that he knows? Maybe we should really imagine this chief librarian as God.
While the EU is spending billions to restart its Galileo GPS satellite project for the umpteenth time, the development of a European search engine has already failed at the first attempt. China, worried about its sovereignty in matters of interpretation, has Baidu. We shouldn't demonise Google, which is a tool we all use every day. But developing a European search engine that is not private or commercial, and not subject to political or economic control, may be the most important technological project of our time. The Chaos Computer Club could act as its technical inspection authority. If we don't do this, maybe one day we'll only be conscious of ourselves when, apparently for the first time, we gaze blankly upon our own likenesses recorded by a webcam and displayed on a computer screen.