A young man left hometown 22 years ago, and turned out to be a poor correspondent2. After a while his letters dried up3, and for six years the family had heard nothing from him. Then his sister entered his name in the Google search engine4 on the Web and, as she says, " There he was on a bowling league5 in Brazil!" Now they're exchanging catch-up letters and photos.6
Who knew Brazilian bowling leagues had Web sites? Google knew, because Google knows everything, or nearly.
The name comes from "googol," the mathematical term for a 1 followed by 100 zeros.7 This means, "a hell of a lot more than there is in the universe."8 The Google people chose it because they want to organize all the data on the Web.
Google started in 1998, when two 26-year-olds , Sergei Brin and Larry Page, set up shop in a tiny office. Today they operate out of a building in Mountain View, Calif., and regional offices all over the world. Google has become the best and most successful search engine.
If you need a map of a region, Google will oblige9. If you rip the rotator cuff in your shoulder,10 Google finds drawings that show you how it works. Should you wish to remember an Alex Colville11 painting, you may well find it among the 181 Colville images available. If you want to recall Churchill's photo, Banff, or Cary Grant,12 Google will show them to you, usually in dozens of versions.
An epidemiologist or social psychologist studying reactions to a phenomenon like the West Nile virus might well come here often,13 to learn what people are saying about it.
This section also provides a rich field for ego-surfing14, or entering your own name to find out what is said about you. Some consider ego-surfing neurotic, and anyone who does it every day probably suffers from an identity problem.15
The other day, unable to resist, I found that I've been mentioned about 500 times in the various chat rooms that Google monitors. This provided half an hour of innocent pleasure.
Google's news report links to 4,500 news sources around the world. On the screen it looks rather like a newspaper page, with pictures and headings, but it changes constantly as newspapers and broadcasters change what they put on the Web. A story gets on if enough newspapers run it and give it prominence.16 Every minute, the computers update the page and compile related stories while dropping others. No human editors decide what's to be emphasized. It sounds ridiculous, but it's not bad at all.
However Google is boastful17. It can't keep itself from telling you how inconceivably fast it is. Ask it for information on Chinese archaeology and it compiles 29,400 links, adding: "search took 0.14 seconds."
Another problem is that identical names baffle Google.18 It needs help distinguishing between Francis Bacon, the 20th-century painter, and Francis Bacon, the 17th-century philosopher. Sometimes Google looks a little foolish.
Now that the verb "to Google" is embedded in the language,19 Googling has turned out to be, for some, a moral problem. A woman wrote to Randy Cohen, the New York Times ethicist, about a friend who had gone out with a doctor and then Googled him when she got home, discovering that he had been involved in several malpractice suits.20 Cohen was asked whether this was a decent21 thing to do. He said it was and that he had done it himself. The woman's Googling, Cohen said, was benign22, just like asking her friends about this fellow.
Tired of Google? I'm afraid those who are tired of Google are tired of life.