Thursday, September 29, 2005


This blog is in danger of becoming moribund (or perhaps it already is?). I should crank up the output. Too busy at the moment I'm afraid.

Anyway, this is an interesting article in today's Guardian about Google. The author, John Battelle, posits that Google's ultimate mission is to make it possible to search the physical world like we can now search the digital world (from web, to desktop... to the city, to your home).

Let's break down Google's mission further. What is "information" anyway? In the end, it is data that describes something. Maybe it's a document on the web, but to think that is where it ends is to think small. Perhaps it is the location of your car, or the cost of a box of Pampers in a store in suburban Miami. It could be your wedding photos, or a video stream of a tsunami racing across the Indian Ocean. The first years of Google's rise have taught us that if something is of value, it needs to be in Google's index. What if the world becomes the index?

Thinking about the merger of the physical world with the world wide web might make your head hurt, but after you have reached for the aspirin, Google's mission starts to resonate with larger ambitions. Information is all around us, but how might the company make it accessible?
Now that so many things are digitally tagged in one way or another (mobile phones, RFID tags) it may well be that you will be able to search for them using Google or a tool like it.

In this context, the opening up of GoogleMaps makes sense as a stepping stone to this goal. GoogleMaps has already spawned lots of applications where people are mapping their cities in different ways. I've written about some already: the MySociety ones, and FoundCity. A new one I saw the other day on is mapping the movements of local rail in Dublin (the DART!).

Ben Russell has written about overlaying the Internet onto real space and the possibilities that arise from that... "searching for sadness in New York" being one evocative phrase used. But the possibilities are more tangible, in that people* now have tools to organise space and thus shape it in some way. GoogleMaps makes that easier, although you would still need to be fairly technical to make it work. But you don't need vast resources. I like the DIY nature of these projects at the moment, the fact that they’re being developed by enthusiasts rather than corporations.

But to return to the Google vision of being able to make all our information, in whatever form, accessible… I find all this exciting but also slightly scary... I'm always concerned about the privacy implications. However I am cheered by the fact that these Grand Visions never work out quite as completely as they're predicted. Technology generally lets you down. And one can never underestimate human nature in subverting technology.

*not everyone but we should come back to that.


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