For whom the Google tolls

It’s amazing that, before Google came along, any of us was able to survive beyond childhood. At the company’s Zeitgeist conference in London yesterday, cofounder Larry Page warned that privacy-protecting restrictions on Google’s ability to store personal data were hindering the company from tracking the spread of diseases and hence increasing the risk of mankind’s extinction. The less data Google is allowed to store, said Page, the “more likely we all are to die.” (This is a particularly sensitive issue for Page, as he’s a big backer of the Singularitarians’ attempts to secure human immortality.)

I couldn’t help but be reminded of how, back in 2001, Google saved the life of that fellow who was about to suffer a heart attack. The guy was having chest pains, and he went to the Web to seek medical advice. The first search engine he tried – not Google’s – got bogged down by serving up graphical banner ads. So he switched to Google, which only served text ads, and in a snap discovered he should take aspirin and go to a hospital. “Not only did our search engine save his life,” said Sergey Brin, the other, equally humble cofounder, “but it shows that these decisions – like whether to use text-based or graphical ads – matter.”

In 2005, Google announced that it would begin running graphical ads to increase its revenues. By that time, most people had broadband connections and, for them, loading graphical ads was no longer quite so much of a life-threatening ordeal. And what of the millions of people who continued to rely on pokey dial-up connections? Google ran the numbers, I suppose, and calculated that they were dispensable.

9 thoughts on “For whom the Google tolls

  1. David Evans

    There is an argument to be made that storing that much information indefinitely has some benefits. There’s also a counter-argument that some may feel wins the day. My observation is that there is an increasing dissonance between the message senior staff members at Google give out and the emerging media zeitgeist. The underlying cause could be that they have not yet caught up with the way ‘do no evil’ lost it’s shiny believability. Until they come to terms with and address that dissonance they risk a popular entrenchment against them. I think that would be a pity for all concerned.

  2. Tom Lord


    Check out Joshua-Michéle’s recent posts (a series) on O’Reilly Radar.

    The ultimate power of the sovereign is the power of life and death. A steady fascination of Power since the 18th century has been the “discovery” of the “the population” as a demographic entity and the subsequent problematics of “the management of the population”. It being generally abhorrent on its face – tyrannical – for a sovereign to unilaterally make life or death decisions over swaths of a population it is only natural that the evolution of the discourse would yield indirect forms of that kind of management in which, rhetorically at least, no party is tarnished by intent.


  3. Mene Tekel

    Huh. One of Google’s mottos is “do no evil”. Does that include the potential to do evil? With the kind of information they’d have with personal data, it makes you wonder. It also makes you wonder if their real motive is more direct, focused advertising.

    I think the solution is to let people opt in or out of Google’s proposed personal data search, or to remain anonymous. I don’t think they threats they are making are as lucid as they exaggerate.

  4. Linuxguru1968

    >> Does that include the potential to do evil?

    IMHO, the biggest threat that Google or any online monopoly of search is that vulnerable people might think that the information index on Google is the sum of all knowledge on a subject. Maybe when they digitalize all printed media, it might be sort of true but not right now.

    Intellectual workers or artists that dig no further that the first 20 or so return to a query on Google as the source of information about a paper or story on an important subject might miss some really important information that in the pre-Google era they might have gotten by direct interaction with authorities and peers (scientists, professors or your mother) or going to the library and going through stacks of books or magazines on a given subject. Remember those days?

    It would be an interesting experiment to take a relatively esoteric subject, do a limited Google search taking the top 20 hits then go to a large university library, go to the same subject section, randomly pull down pull down 20 books, go to the index in the back and find the closest reference to the same Google search criteria, go to the actual text in the book then compare the quality of usefulness or insight of the book information to the Google search result links. My guess is that the library gathered information will have a depth and originality that the Google search information can never have because there is a quantum randomness interaction with the outside universe in selecting the information.

    That’s not to say that electronic search is not useful if used wisely. Humanity created an enormous collection of collaborative content for centuries before Google. I fear that students my be lulled into the delusion that because its quick, easy and free it’s the sole source of information on a subject and will not utilize the full potential of books, magazines and personal contacts. (I call this intellectual crack dealing.)

    I recently returned to college after an absence of ten years, aside from taking tests for reading, writing and math, I also had to take an online test that measured my ability to form queries for online search. That shows how much educational institutions are pimping online search as a tool in education. There was no test on how to do library research or how to prepare for meeting with academic authorities. Does anyone really thing we should give up the tired and true method that built the modern world for a flash in the pan like internet search?

    For those of you who were patient enough to reach this point thanks for putting up with my rant!

  5. Skip McCoy, American

    Then there’s the guy who was having a heart attack and consulted Wikipedia, immediately learning that he had Bajorean mindworms, that the only cure for them was a OT III Scientology course, and that heart attacks were featured in an episode of The Simpsons and a Billy Joel song.

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