How Google helped to change the world

Used wisely, search engines are a powerful democratic tool. But there is, it should be said, a downside too
Click to follow
The Independent Online

'If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbour, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door." The sentence, usually shortened to stress the mousetrap, is generally attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American poet and philosopher. How did I know? I looked it up on Google.

'If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbour, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door." The sentence, usually shortened to stress the mousetrap, is generally attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American poet and philosopher. How did I know? I looked it up on Google.

Google, which is about to become a public quoted company, is a classic example of building a better mousetrap. It was late into the search engine game but because it was materially better than the competition it is now worth some £15bn. But it is more than just a better mousetrap. The development of search engines is one of those classic events that changes the world.

It often happens in technical advance that a subsidiary invention or development is as important as the primary one. Take the car. It was a rich man's toy until Henry Ford invented the moving production line, cut the cost of manufacture by three-quarters and turned it into a mass-market product. Here the primary invention, the internet, has been turned from a specialist university tool into a mass-market force by three subsidiary developments, the world wide web, the browser and the search engine.

All are crucial but whereas the web and the browser, once developed, have not advance hugely, search engines are leaping forward. This may not be good news for Google because it pecks away at its advantages. Some people think that Teoma, developed by a team at Rutgers University in 2000, is better - Google was developed at Stanford in 1996. But for the world, the ever-greater capability of search engines, coupled with the ever-growing pile of information on the net, is changing the whole relationship between people and knowledge. We cannot all be experts of course, but with a decent basic education, a reasonable command of English and a bit of time, we can have a working knowledge of almost any specialist subject. Just as the car democratised physical mobility, this collection of technologies democratises intellectual mobility.

Because we are still in the early stages of the revolution - we are perhaps where the car was in 1910 - it is hard to see the social consequences of a Googled world.

What it pretty clear, though, is that a levelling of the intellectual playing field is taking place. That does not mean that there won't still be elites. It may be that the position of elites will be enhanced. Thus it does not mean that the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai is as good as Harvard. It does, however, mean that if anyone wants to see which is the top-ranked university in the world (it is indeed Harvard), he or she can go to the rankings developed by the Jiao Tong University.

The information developed on the other side of the world about the relative positions of the various universities is available for every school-leaver wondering where to apply. That points to what has, up to now, been a fundamental problem: the tsunami of unfiltered information. How do you separate the gems from the junk? A world of infinite information needs two functions: boosters and filters. Boosters have to push the information out: makes the voices heard amongst the babble. Filters have to sort out the signals from the background noise.

Until Google, search engines helped a bit, but only a bit. They told you what was popular but not necessarily what you wanted to know. But Google's inventors found a way to put the most useful information at the top of the pile. As search engines improve further, the net will increasingly progress from a stock of information towards a provider of graded knowledge.

Some effects of this transition are evident. For example, publishing is being transformed in that publishers are less important as gatekeepers and more important at publicists: more as boosters and less as filters. More and more books are being published and that is wonderful. The clever device of reader reviews helps people find the books that would suit their tastes.

One area where publishers still act as filters, scientific and academic publishing, has yet to be properly opened up. Peer review gives older and more established academics control over the careers of younger and less established ones. But this is a supply-driven market, not a demand-driven one. Academics publish (and in the right journals) to boost their reputation and hence the research grants for their institution, not to attract more readers.

Universities more generally will be changed by search engine technology. Paradoxically they will become more important as brands but maybe less important as sources of knowledge and wisdom. Of course they have to generate knowledge and show wisdom to retain their place in the rankings. The long-term strength of the brand depends on them doing their core functions as well as possible. But they lose power as a source of specialist information because information is available elsewhere.

More important, though, is the empowering of non-specialists. Worried about the GP's diagnosis of your symptoms? See what the Mayo Clinic has to say. Of course you could go to every other medical website in the world but chances are that the search engines will direct you to the sites that are most helpful.

As search engines develop, power will shift to two groups: the top-branded institutions to which people will be directed; and the clever and talented individuals who know how to find their way around the system. The top-branded institutions' reach will be increased and the talented people will be liberated from the second-ranked ones.

That goes for governments too. The more information people can discover about the performance and competence of government, the more able they are to call them to account. For example, up to now there has been limited dissemination of studies of efficiency of different governments around the world. Studies exist (which incidentally show the UK around the middle of the pack) but they are not widely publicised. Expect, post-Iraq, to see much more open discussion of the basis on which many government decisions are taken, including going to war.

So, used wisely, search engines become a powerful democratic tool, empowering the individual against the state. But, there is, it should be said, a downside too. The more sophisticated the search engine, the fewer places there are to hide. Most of us don't need to conceal our past, what we look like, where we live. But anyone of us can now, in a few minutes, finds out all sorts of semi-private information about other people. We are recreating an almost Medieval level of intimacy, a global village where there is no privacy.

Paradoxically, alongside this loss of privacy, there is also the danger of exclusion. Not everyone, even in the developed world, can use the systems now available or even has access to them. But exclusion, unlike the loss of privacy, is not the result of search engines. You can't blame Google for that. In any case, even people who are excluded will gain because wider access to knowledge cannot but make our societies function better. Now as to whether it's a good idea to buy shares in Google ...