Googling my brain

Another great leap for lazy thinkers: My computer is now as easy to search as the Web.


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Andrew Leonard
October 20, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

Call it "the Google news cycle." The search company announces a new software product -- in this case, Google Desktop Search -- and the Web erupts. The early adopters trample everything in their path as they stampede to sign up, while the blogosphere punditocracy simultaneously informs us why the new offering is A) the best thing since sliced bread; B) the worst invasion of privacy ever perpetrated; C) a security disaster waiting to happen; D) a brilliant but ultimately doomed play in the War to Control the Future of the Internet; and E) something that the Macintosh already had five years ago.

It's possible that all these things are true, or none. I don't know. What I do know is that it's not every day that a software program shocks me.

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Google Desktop Search is billed as a way to search your hard drive really fast. While I was installing the program, I happened to go to Google.com, as I do about 932 times a day, to search for some odd fact on the Net. But the first result that came back from what I thought was a Web search turned out to be an old document that I'd long forgotten about, resting in some mildewy dungeon deep within my own computer.

It was alarming, though not necessarily in a bad way, to see that old file pop up. The shock was not that Google had instantaneously located the document even before it had finished indexing my drive. What flabbergasted me was how seamlessly the experience slotted into my already well-established Web searching habits. I've lived through years of hype about how "network computing" and "Web services" were going to make my desktop irrelevant -- that everything I would need would be online, so I could free myself from my offline chains. I've shrugged it all off: I love the Net, but I also have a fondness for my own hardware, and my own software applications. And yet, in one swift stroke, Google abolished the boundary that separated my computer from the Internet. From now on, when I search, I will be searching both. That's just the way it is going to be.

There is software that makes our lives easier, or more productive, and then there is software that changes the way we think. I don't know if Google is going to be the company that comes out on top as the offline and online worlds get mashed together, but I am sure that something important just happened. At the very least, I'm hoping that I end up having to spend a lot less time thinking about how I think. Computers are best when they allow us to be lazy. Google Desktop Search just brought me a quantum leap closer to the natural slackerhood to which I aspire.

What does that mean? Judging from my own patterns of computer use over the decades, it seems likely that most people who rely heavily on computers spend a fair amount of time thinking about the best way to organize their information. But our decisions on how best to proceed are rooted in the capabilities and quirks of our hardware and software. Take a very simple example: Back when disk drive space was expensive and limited, I was always making decisions on what was important enough to keep on the hard drive. Today, with a gigabyte of storage costing about a dollar, I no longer care -- I save everything. (Or nearly everything -- I still take pleasure in deleting spam.) In a sense, hardware changes have made me a lazier computer user.

Google, in its original incarnation as a Web search engine, made me even lazier, by at least a couple of orders of magnitude. Now, not only do I no longer have to worry about whether something is important or not, I don't even have to remember anything I thought I once knew, either. If I have a question, I Google for the answer. Dates, spelling, locations, who screwed who in Greek mythology -- I used to be good at all that stuff, but now, heck, who cares? As long as I'm connected online, I can find out whatever I want. This is comforting, and relaxing. Ever since I stopped trying to remember things, I've been way more productive.

Now, with Google Desktop Search, the world suddenly has an easy-to-install application that makes searching your own hard drive as painless, fast and familiar as searching the Web (provided, right now, that you fit the profile of a Windows user who relies on Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer and Outlook Mail).

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But wait -- did I really just write the words "makes searching your own hard drive as easy and as fast as searching the Web"? Isn't there something absurd about that? The Web is, for all practical purposes, infinitely large, constantly growing, and packed with information uploaded by complete strangers according to no organized scheme. My computer, in contrast, is clearly finite, has been stocked by yours truly, and is organized according to my own best efforts at amateur archival librarianship.

How is it possible that it is more difficult to find what I need from my own computer than from the Web? And what exactly does the end of this circumstance mean for how I think about thinking?

The oddest thing about Google's success is that it is, at least in part, built upon a stunning, and inexplicable, failure by Microsoft. It is mind-boggling that Google can do a better job searching my computer than the manufacturer of the computer's own operating system. Ridiculous, really. Finding stuff should be fundamental. And yet, for years, I have been gnashing my teeth while trying to find that e-mail from four years ago with the recipe for cheese puffs in it. Fie on you, Microsoft!

Incidentally, I am fully prepared to believe that there are other search applications that work as well as Google does on my desktop. I've heard good things about X1 and Copernic, and I have no doubt that Macs are perfect in every way, since they always have been and always will be. But I don't care. I downloaded X1 to give it a try, and it informed me that my computer would run slowly for several hours while it indexed my system. Excuse me? I need my computer to work. Google politely told me that it would only index my system during those moments when the computer was idle. Get up to go to the bathroom, and it kicks into action -- hit a single keystroke and it goes back to sleep.

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That's great design. I don't actually enjoy reviewing software applications -- the idea of spending all day comparing the speed with which different search programs find obscure stuff strikes me as hellish. What I want is something that works -- and once I have it, I'm not going to look back, or fret that someone else has a better setup than mine.

I'll also concede that Google Desktop Search is far from perfect: The privacy and security aspects are indeed worth pondering. I trust that Google is telling the truth when it says that it is not snarfing up the contents of my hard drive into some server farm in Sunnyvale, Calif., but that's not what worries me. A friend of mine deleted Google Desktop Search once he realized that his teenage son might be innocently searching for something online and accidentally retrieve his father's private e-mails on the same subject.

However, my kids have their own computer, so that's not my problem. The fact is, Google Desktop Search solves problems that have long plagued me, so it's on my computer to stay. And what I find most intriguing is that all of a sudden, I want to make Google Desktop Search happy. I want to change my own behavior to better please it. Normally, I get upset when software doesn't work the way I want it to, and I try to fix the software. But not this time.

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For at least a decade, I have appended a ".doc" extension to any word processing document that I create. ".doc" is the default file-type extension associated with Microsoft Word documents, but I use it even when creating documents in my editor of choice, UltraEdit. I can't really explain why -- it's just a habit, an artifact of the days when Word was my primary word processing app.

But Google Desktop Search has a problem indexing files if they have ".doc" extensions, but are not actually Word files. Never mind that all such files on my hard drive are plain text files, and that, if I rename them with a .txt extension, or without any extension at all, Google instantly finds them.

The point of this convoluted anecdote is that I understood immediately that the value of Google Desktop Search to me was so great that I would change my age-old habits instantly to ensure that I gained maximum benefit from the program. I might not be able to figure out how to make Google index those Ultraedit .doc files, but I definitely could immediately stop adding .doc to any new files that I was creating. And so I did. Goodbye, .doc.

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The question I'm facing now is, what's next? How else am I going to change at the behest of this software?

In the narrow domain of document management alone, I've spent more hours than I care to remember trying to organize my files so I can find things easily. I've organized by date, by subject, by employer. I've set aside time in my work day just to think about how to better organize things.

And still I can't find what I want when I'm looking for it! Either I've forgotten the system of organization I was using when I filed the document away, or I was too busy to properly file it when I made it or saved it, or the name I gave it doesn't accurately describe it, or some other bungle. The problem has only gotten worse over time, as I move from computer to computer, trailing every file I've ever made behind me.

One hour with Google Desktop Search and I realized that I'll never worry about where to put something again. Not only do I no longer have to remember how to spell, or when something happened, or who is running for president, I now no longer have to remember where anything is!

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The implications of this are far greater than just my own gradual, decades-long slide into computer sloth, aided and abetted every step of the way by brilliant software and ever-more-powerful hardware. The clear lesson here is that we work best with computers when we have to think the least. And the next step from not worrying about where stuff is on my computer and where stuff is on the Web, is not worrying about the dividing line between the two.

I've been hanging on to an atavistic faith that my own computer is somehow better than the Web, that the information I store on it is somehow more valuable than the information out on the Web. But my faith is slipping, and I blame Google. Why should I bother with bookmarks if Google can remember every Web page I've ever looked at? Why should I make any distinction between the Net and my hard drive when I'm navigating the information stored on both through the same interface?

I don't think there's much point in denying it any longer. I always thought that the key to making networking computing palatable to the masses would be in making the Net seem like my computer. The paradox is that the reverse turns out to be the case: By making my computer as easy to search as the Net, Google has pushed me irrevocably into the network.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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