Thursday, June 15, 2006

Google and the Circle of Life

Exit Silicon Graphics, enter Google: And life goes on..

Google's mystique only increases. Can you think of another company whose headquarters has been the subject of so much hype, speculation and rumor? If a latter-day, corporate version of historic Xanadu* exists, surely the storied Googleplex is a strong claimant for that title.

Need evidence to believe? A Google search for "Googleplex" produces 900,000 hits. Time has recently done a photoessay on life in the Googleplex**.

And now comes a report that Google is building a hush-hush piece of its Googleplex on the windswept Oregon-Washington border. How hush-hush, you say? Reports the IHT,

The design and even the nature of the Google center in this industrial and agricultural outpost 80 miles east of Portland, Oregon, has been a closely guarded corporate secret. Many local officials in The Dalles, including the city attorney and the city manager, said they could not comment on
the Google data center project, referred to locally as Project 02, because they signed confidentiality agreements with the company last year.
"No one says the 'G' word," said Diane Sherwood, who, as executive director of the Port of Klickitat, Washington, directly across the river from The Dalles, is not bound by such agreements. "It's a little bit like 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named' in Harry Potter."

But one thing about the Googleplex struck me as a poignant irony: it leases buildings that are owned by, and formerly housed, that great Silicon Valley giant of yesteryear, Silicon Graphics. Now that SGI is in bankruptcy, Google is in the process of buying those buildings. Says the
San Jose Business Journal:

If SGI's bankruptcy goes through, Google expects the transaction to close no later than the end of June.

The circle of life. Sigh.

* Xanadu was the fabled summer capital of Kublai Khan, the wonders of which were extolled to Europeans by Western explorers such as Marco Polo

** there is a "factory tour" of the plex among the superb set of Google videos linked from the Google blog here.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

YAPOO (Yet Another Premature and Obnoxious Obituary)

Premature Obituaries are flying thick and fast

The human race appears to have a peculiar fixation with proclamations of death (including its own - I recall at least a dozen predictions of the end of the world from the 1970s thru the 1990s - complete with precise date and time!).

I wrote a couple of days ago about the premature reports of the death of serendipity. Well, the latest occupant of the deathbed appears to be the Wikipedia. Nicholas Carr writes,

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that "anyone can edit," was a nice experiment in the "democratization" of publishing, but it didn't quite work out. Wikipedia is dead. There was a time when, indeed, pretty much anyone could edit pretty much anything on Wikipedia. A few months ago,... the Wikipedian powers-that-be abandoned the work's founding ideal of being the "ULTIMATE 'open' format" and tightened the restrictions on editing. The administrators adopted an "official policy" of what they called, in good Orwellian fashion, "semi-protection" to prevent "vandals" (also known as people) from messing with their open encyclopedia. The end came last Friday. That's when Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, proposed "that we eliminate the requirement that semi-protected articles have to announce themselves as such to the general public."

This suggestion has, predictably enough, been widely and vociferously pilloried. Let me share my view: As I wrote in the Wisdom of the Wiki, it appears easy to scoff at the notion of an encyclopedia - which by definition is supposed to be the epitome of accuracy, authority, and accountability - that was created in such an apparently loose, disorganized and open manner, allowing any unschooled person with an internet connection to update it. However, amazing as it may seem, we must accept that the Wikipedia has come to be a truly reliable and authoritative source of knowledge - anyone who goes thru it in any degree of detail will be able to attest to that.

Thus, proclamations of its death, if any, must be done based on establishing that it no longer serves the purpose of providing a reliable reference source, or at least that it has abandoned the spirit of what constitutes a 'wiki'. Proclaiming its death based on a change in the administrative procedure that makes it somewhat less 'open' is, apart from being unnecessarily alarmist, completely unjustified, given that it continues to be as reliable as ever, and continues to be a wiki in spirit.

In addition, the change in administrative procedure is not surprising or unfamiliar to anyone who has created such a repository that depends on submissions from a large number of contributors: in the initial stages, the focus is on getting a large volume of content, and so you allow a very high degree of openness. As the volume of content builds up, the focus steadily shifts toward quality, and so you tighten the contribution mechanism. And that is what seems to be happening at the greatest Wiki of 'em all.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Late Lamented Serendipity?

Reports that the internet has killed serendipity are greatly exaggerated

A vigorous debate* has been sparked off by an op-ed article written by a University of Florida Professor, which in essence argues that the internet has made information so easy to find that the joy of stumbling on information that you didn't know existed has been killed off.

I recommend the following to anybody who thinks the internet has consigned serendipity** to the dustbin: next time you visit any website, just look around at the various links on whichever page you are on. You are certain to see at least one or two links that, while being unrelated to your current search, look like they may offer something interesting enough to check out. Use the "Open link in new window" feature to open the page to which that link leads without distracting you from whatever topic you are currently trying to get information on. Later on, when you have some leisure on your hands, you can go back to these windows lying open on your desktop and read those pages. I do this all the time, and because of this, end up getting information on far more topics from each surfing session than I ever set out to get. Long live Serendipity.

Further evidence that serendipity is hale and hearty in the age of the internet is that the new ubergurus of the internet, the folks at Google, have a service called Serendipity on their radar***.

Nevertheless, the perception that serendipity has lost out in the internet age has, in my opinion, some basis. The reasons have to do with both technology and mindset:

1. Low bandwidth ensures that the cost of "internet digression" such as the above is often prohibitive.
2. Newer web access devices such as handhelds, mobile phones, etc. suffer from limitations that make it difficult to digress in the above manner.
3. Above all, the attention deficit nature of our society ensures that we just do not want to digress as above. In the old days when we used to visit libraries to dig for information, we were just more willing to allow ourselves to digress. And that is the real reason for the perceived loss of serendipity.

As with many other developments - technological or otherwise - that we regard as the bane of society, it is not so much that things around us have changed - it is that we have changed!
* See, for example, Nicholas Carr's blog

** Incidentally, the word serendipity comes from an old name for the island of Sri Lanka, Serendip.

*** In fact, they already have a service called Google Suggest which partially acts as a mechanism to find sites you weren't really looking for (or were, but may not have found thru conventional search)!.