If it weren't for the war, and the terrorism and the election, 2004 might well be remembered as the Year of Search. Maybe it will anyway. If we get through these rocky times with civilization's underpinnings intact, our descendants, swimming in total information, might be required to memorize the date of last August's Google IPO as a cultural milestone. Except that in the post-Google era, memorization will be obsolete, because even the most obscure fact will be instantly retrievable.
Google's IPO is important not because of the billions of bucks involved, but as a symbol of the impact of the two revolutions its founders fomented. Most of us are already making use of the first one, involving the life-changing feedback that comes from a query in the Google search field (or those of its increasingly competitive rivals). This is just an appetizer of the feast to come as search systems attempt to encompass every bit of data generated by humanity. When Amazon.com began its groundbreaking "Search Inside the Book" program, allowing users to find any passage in hundreds of thousands of tomes, I noted that it marked the transition to a new era of history. After a few thousand years or so of an earlier era, when people were recording their experiences on cave walls and in books, we can now envision a point at which anyone can instantly, and routinely, find the tiniest needle in this vast data haystack of knowledge. This is the context of Google's announcement last week that it will integrate libraries into its indexes: parts or all of the collections of Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the New York Public Library. Google cofounder Larry Page says that he and his partner Sergey Brin had been exposed to the digital-library idea when both were Stanford students but "we didn't think that this could be done in our lifetime." Now it can, and at a more-than-reasonable price tag. After all, at an estimated $10 a volume, the cost of digitizing the 15 million books in some of the world's great libraries tallies to less than that of financing the movie "Van Helsing." This covers only printed books, but Page is already excitedly talking about research papers' dealing with the task of digitizing handwritten manuscripts.
Google's goal is to have everything at your fingertips, all the world's information digitized and instantly available to all who have a right to see it. It's a task hardily joined by heavyweights Microsoft and Yahoo, along with an ever-expanding list of smaller players. So we can expect Google's growing family of currently or potentially searchable applications--which include news, images, social networking, academic citations, catalogs, personal photos and maps--to be duplicated by others, if not leapfrogged. (Just last week Yahoo introduced its beta version of video search, allowing instant access to the millions of clips stored on the Web.)
As if that isn't enough, there is that second revolution I mentioned. It involves Google's success in transforming this informational bounty into an amazingly profitable enterprise. It's based on the very reasonable premise that ads are most effective when pegged to what you want to know, as opposed to what you want to watch. (To be fair, a company called Overture, now owned by Yahoo, also pioneered this idea.) This works not only with search results but with many fertile areas that have previously been ad-free zones. Like e-mail: Google serves ads pegged to the content of your messages in its Gmail service. Google figures that this model can eventually work with the files on your own computer. Or with the contents of libraries. Which is fine with the administrators who signed the deal with Google last week. "What could be better for the missions of the great academic institutions of the world than to have a public that really wants to look at our stuff?" says University of Michigan provost Paul Courant.
Beyond the obvious privacy implications of total access, there is the very big issue of how much we want the world's information transformed into a giant ad environment. But in this case knowledge and commercialism seems inextricably intertwined. An even more burning question is what it will mean, really, to have all of humankind's facts, observations and sales pitches available any time. I suspect those answers will be long in coming to our fingertips. In the meantime, we can only marvel as history becomes supercharged.