Owning a piece of our brains

With the launch of MSN Search, Microsoft hopes to dominate the market for a simple tool that has become essential to our lives.

By Oliver Burkeman - Bobbie Johnson

Published February 3, 2005 3:32PM (EST)

In 1990, which is almost unimaginably long ago in Internet years, the notion that computer scientists might one day create an artificial replacement for human memory was the stuff of science fiction. Literally so: The idea was the premise of "Total Recall," the needlessly violent and confusing Arnold Schwarzenegger movie released that year by Twentieth Century Fox. (The future governor of California was cast -- appropriately, some might have argued -- as a man who has had part of his brain stolen.) Real computer science in 1990 was far more modest. At McGill University in Canada, one of its practitioners, a student named Alan Emtage, was busy developing a program that would enable people to find documents on the embryonic computer network known as the Internet. He wanted to call it Archives, but the system he was using didn't allow names that long, so the first-ever search engine had to be called Archie instead.

At least, that's probably how it happened: Most of the information in the paragraph above comes -- albeit double-checked -- originally from sources reached through Internet search engines. Emtage couldn't possibly have known it at the time, but his invention gave birth to an idea that would come to change, at a fundamental level, the way we think. Its most feverish point was reached Tuesday, when Bill Gates officially launched MSN Search, Microsoft's long-awaited rival to Google, the Web site that has become a sort of outboard brain for millions of people in the information age.

Google and its rivals no longer just point us in the direction of useful Web sites. They help us navigate through online dictionaries and telephone directories, scholarly journals and image libraries; one Google service launched this month allows clip-by-clip searching of American television news broadcasts. The company has announced plans to digitize a million books from Oxford University's Bodleian Library, along with many millions more from Harvard, Stanford and the New York Public Library.

Enter "time in Beijing" into the AskJeeves.com search engine and it will tell you the actual time in Beijing; put "John-Stevens New-Mexico" into Google and it will give you the phone numbers and home addresses of four people by that name in that state.

"It becomes an extension of my mind, an extension of my taste, my sensibility, my active memory," says Sherry Turkle, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. We no longer need to remember, yet nor can we ever truly forget, because everything's out there, logged and stored. It's not so much that knowledge is power. Dominating the market in the tools people use to navigate that knowledge -- which is what Gates wants to do now -- is the true source of power. Own that, and is it too much of an overstatement to say that you own a little piece of people's brains?

In truth, Microsoft has been incredibly late in coming to the game. A recent survey, conducted before the full launch of MSN Search, showed that the site that 66 percent of Microsoft employees were using to do their searching was .... The California-based company, founded in 1998 by the Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin, revolutionized the concept of searching. Its system relies on the wisdom of crowds -- the belief that the more people link to a page, the more authoritative it becomes.

At a stroke, searching was democratized. There was no need for people to sit at desks, categorizing pages according to their subject matter; the classification of information on the Internet became a self-supporting, organic structure. The power to find things on the Internet was in the hands of the people, not the programmers. (MSN Search appears to follow a similar logic.)

Google also happened upon an ingenious source of revenue for its ever-expanding operations. As Web users became increasingly exhausted by louder and louder and more and more annoying advertising, Google introduced low-key advertising on its results pages, matched to the words being searched for. The ads get their value not by bludgeoning users around the head, but by being precisely targeted to their specific interests -- an advertiser's demographic dream. Competition is heating up: A9, the search facility attached to the Web site of bookseller Amazon.com, allows visitors to search the text and footnotes of books -- real books, made of paper -- before committing to purchasing them.

But do we really want all this new information? "The end result of a perfect search world is that as fast as answers are generated and consumed, new questions come quicker, with the consequence that ignorance expands," Internet guru Kevin Kelly writes in an e-mail. "What we know we don't know expands faster than what we know. This has been true for a while and will only continue. Science, in fact, will come to be measured as the expansion of our ignorance, rather than an expansion of our knowledge."

Turkle, meanwhile, says she has noticed subtle transformations in the ways some of her students think and order their ideas. "There is this sense that the world is out there to be Googled," she says, "and there is this associative glut. But linking from one thing to another is not the same as having something to say. A structured thought is more than a link."

Besides, she adds, something seems to be missing. She is organizing a forthcoming trip to Bangkok, Thailand, with her daughter and recently pulled up search results promising 50,000 sites related to her area of interest, where before she would clip cuttings from magazines and keep them in files. "But there's a superficiality, a sameness. I get 50,000 sites, but the one I cut out from a magazine came from somewhere quirky, or it was something one of my friends had sent me."

And then there's the question of accuracy. In fields where tracking down a completely correct fact is the very point of the job, people still regard search engines as very far from direct access points to the truth. David Elias, a professional verifier of answers for television quizzes, says he tends to mistrust the Web -- "There's so much rubbish out there."

"The rule is that you have to have two independent sources saying the same thing," says Katie Purnell, who researched questions for the quiz show "Grand Slam." "We would very rarely go with a question if we could only find the answers by searching the Internet. There's still something about the Encyclopedia Britannica" (although the Encyclopedia Britannica is, naturally, online).

But there is no sign of any diminution of our appetite for what aficionados now know simply by the noun "search." Over the past year, the battle between the search engines has intensified dramatically, and last year AOL and Yahoo launched their own search technologies. Google continues to be the market leader, and now commands around 42 percent of all Internet searches -- a commanding, but far from unassailable, position. Enormous sums are involved: The company's flotation, last fall, raised more than $1 billion on the opening day, and its price now stands at almost $200 a share. It is all a very long way from just a few years ago, when what you put on the Web was what mattered, not how you helped people find it.

With the market consolidated among a handful of strong players, the biggest threat to Google and MSN Search will be from nontraditional companies that choose to do something daring: abandon Google's page-ranking model. Sites with names like Orase and Technorati are offering a new phenomenon, real-time searching, which catches events and Web pages as they are put on the Internet, instead of sending "spiders" through the Web to index them afterward. Meanwhile, a variety of new tools promise to seamlessly integrate searching for data on the Web with searching for data on our own computers. It need not stop there: If Internet telephone calls become as ubiquitous as e-mail, why shouldn't we search through archives of our every conversation? Every new development is a new opportunity to deliver value to the user (and, not coincidentally, to advertise to them even more effectively). If search engines really do function as artificial memories, they are memories that are set to become ever larger and ever more rapidly updated.

But will being able to access more information really help us do the things we want to do? Eric Davies, a library scientist at Loughborough University, has seen it all: long rows of card index files, followed by proprietary computer-search systems installed in libraries, and now the Internet. "Fundamentally the important point remains the same," he says. "Before you go anywhere near a keyboard or a catalog, you have to define the subject you're after. These are disciplines we need to recover," he adds, with only the faintest trace of exasperation, "and instill in people who just have the Google mentality."

You can't fight technology, Turkle says, but you can influence the way it changes your life. "I can't ask my students to pretend they don't live in this century," she says. "But you have to put the technology in its place."

Oliver Burkeman

MORE FROM Oliver Burkeman

Bobbie Johnson

MORE FROM Bobbie Johnson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------