Saturday, December 24, 2005

Meta-Snooping: Tag -- You're It

Lots of hue-and-cry about the Bush administration and the NSA doing various spy stuff to catch terrorists before they terrorize. Lot's of drama on both sides: "We need these tools to catch terrorists." "You're trampling on people's rights." "Would you rather have a repeat of 9/11?" "I'd rather have my prviace!"

Not going to get into it here.

What I am going to get into is a really, really interesting line in a NYT article (not sure if you need to be a subscriber anymore) about the latest "data mining" that the NSA is doing. I'm going to summarize and quote from it heavily r.e. my points (big surprise, there, eh?), so don't worry too much.

The basic gist is that the NSA has been working with various telecommunications companies to get their switch data in order to analyze traffic patterns to help identify possible terrorist activities. Here's a quote (emphasis mine):

A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.

"All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there's been much more active involvement in that area," said the former manager, a telecommunications expert who did not want his name or that of his former company used because of concern about revealing trade secrets.

Such information often proves just as valuable to the government as eavesdropping on the calls themselves, the former manager said.

"If they get content, that's useful to them too, but the real plum is going to be the transaction data and the traffic analysis," he said. "Massive amounts of traffic analysis information - who is calling whom, who is in Osama Bin Laden's circle of family and friends - is used to identify lines of communication that are then given closer scrutiny."

Got that? The content itself is "useful," but the "real plum" is the "transaction data and the traffic analysis." In other words, the metadata (the tags) and the knowledge management.

Let's have one more quote:

Historically, the American intelligence community has had close relationships with many communications and computer firms and related technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's operational capability, according to current and former government officials.

And one last one:

Phil Karn, a computer engineer and technology expert at a major West Coast telecommunications company, said access to such switches would be significant. "If the government is gaining access to the switches like this, what you're really talking about is the capability of an enormous vacuum operation to sweep up data," he said.

The government's position is that since they're not really listening to the conversations -- the content, the data itself -- it's not really an invasion of privacy. It's not snooping. They don't need a warrant. They're just looking for "patterns."

Er... well... just so we're clear, these neat little dots on the screen you're looking at are just patterns. Just recognizable bits of electrons in a slightly more coherent order than the ones around them, as far as your eyeballs and brain are concerned. Voices modulate the air in wave patterns. The gun in my sock drawer is part of a complex patter. Etc. All that crazy stuff.

The assumption is, I believe, that once an official has sufficient metadata to make a decision (i.e., "these are bad guys") that he will then obtain proper warrants, do the due dilligence, get the white hats, and go in and stop the bad things from happening. So purpose of the collection of metadata is to then gain data and then use that to make knowledge decisions which will have real world (hopefully positive) consequences; classic learning theory. Which is all good.

Same as how we use eBay to search for deals on kids clothes. Follow the simile:

  • eBay stores price/product metadata; NSA stores call metadata

  • eBay and NSA both perform sorting/storing operations

  • Customers (eBay = public, NSA = government) scan metadata

  • Customers make decisions based on metadata

  • Customers take virtual action (eBay = order online, NSA = initiate warrants)

  • Real world consequences (eBay = you get Pooh onesy, NSA = arrests made)

Again... it's all good. Right? Using metadata to make knowledge decisions about content and actions.

Except on eBay, nobody's storing metadata about my kids' clothes without my consent.

Oops. I just "got into it" a bit, didn't I?

Allright. I'm backing off. I don't really want to get political. But I do want to make the point that metadata is just as much a piece of information about you as is the data which it informs. Think about the following questions:

  • How much did you pay for that car?

  • How old are you?

  • What do you weigh?

  • What's your salary?

  • Do you color your hair?

  • What kind of perscription drugs do you take?

All those questions feel like data questions, don't they? Real questions. Questions that, it many contexts, you wouldn't want to have to necessarily have to answer.

Are they data questions or metadata questions? Well... it depends on whom you ask, what kind of system you querry, what the fields in the database are, what the key fields are and how you perform the search. And if the questions are:

  • Who did you talk to on the phone?

  • How long did you talk to them for?

  • What times did the calls start and end?

  • Who did they call right afterwards?

  • Where were you when you made the calls?

Those questions are all metadata questions from a telco standpoint. The data itself -- the phone call, the words you spoke -- is encoded in the voice traffic. Right? But is that the whole message? How much of what you do, say, buy, earn, eat, live, smoke, dope, etc. is data, and how much is meta?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and warp the most famous quote from one of my heroes, Marshall McLuhan:

The meta is the message

So... if the government can tag you... that's the same as a tap.

And... Tag -- You're it.

UPDATE: John Battelle's Searchblog has a good post on the NYT's story, too. Read the comments as well. As we've seen in the general discussions in the news, there are lots of folks who don't mind their privacy being infringed... yet.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Copyright. Copywrong. Content. Value. Biscuits.

What do you own?

What value to I add to work that I comment on? What value to I add to things that I own when I comment on them based on work that I don't? When is art a stand-alone proposition? When does it rely on the consensus of society? When does a conversation become content? When can I stop asking rhetorical questions and start this actual post?

A recent article in Wired addressed a situation that we all need to think about. Yes, even you, Stan. Put down your paintball videogame and think about copyright issues, software development, open source, art, creativity and the Web. Yes... you can eat a biscuit with honey on it while you think about these things [Stan is a ferocious multi-tasker, is Stan].

The basic gist of this article is that a fairly small outfit (basically a bright guy named Walter Ritter) invented software that helped people find songs they liked based on the lyrics of other songs they liked. Cool, hunh? It worked with iTunes, and Apple even linked to it from their official site.

But (cue Darth Vader's theme), it could be used as part of your illegal scheme to download and copy music illegally. And so Warner Chappell Music (who have more money than God), sent Ritter a cease-and-desist. They also sent one to Apple. Apple ceased and desisted. Guess what Ritter (basically a bright guy out on his own) did? Yup. He ceased and desisted, too. He didn't want to get sued into a small black chunk of smoking, bituminous coal for distributing software that furthered music piracy. So he stopped.

Which is bad. Because his software, which was cool and useful, has nothing whatsoever to do with piracy. Except inasmuch as pirates could use it to help them identify lyrics to songs they wanted to pirate. Much in the same way that murderers can use binoculars to identify victims and counterfeiters use paper to make fake money.

Now, normally... The story would stop there. But in a strange, almost "Bizzaro World" (links  1 2 3 ) reversal, Warner/Chappell has appologized to Ritter. They may let him post his software again. They may (dare I type the words)... "get it."

What do you want to own?

A great economic philosopher (it may have been me, back when I was still drinking) once said, "Wealth is a measurement of excess food." What I meant by that (if I said it; if I didn't, then what I understand it to mean), is that wealth is everything that's left over once you take care of necessities. So...

Stan owns his biscuit outright. Damn straight, Stan. That biscuit is so yours, I don't even want to talk about it. Especially after you eat it, it is really, really yours. 110% Stan's biscuit. All the way, buddy. Pride of place. You go.

One the other end of the spectrum -- I think -- are "nebulosities." Stuff that's so vague that we can't really say whether or not it's even ownable. For example, pride. Do I own my pride? Can you buy it from me? Can I give it away? Can I rent it to some dude from Pittsburgh for the weekend who needs to confront his girlfriend about her loud, overbearing friends? Nope. Other nebulous stuff that may not be "ownable" could include talent, love, honesty, time, attention, good taste, terror, rhythm, beauty and farfegnugen.

I'm going to get arguments on "time," I know. Since, ostensibly, we all "own" our time and sell it every day at work. But I don't think that's really true. Whether we go to work or not, time passes. If I work hard or not, time passes. If I "add value" or jerk my company around and steal office supplies, time passes. It's not mine to sell. Anyway...

On one end is stuff that we can be said to literally and truly own. My head. My hair. My biscuit and honey. I bought it, I inherited it, I grew it, I won it on "The Price is Right," I traded for it on eBay... whatever. Stuff. It's mine. If you take it, you're a thief and I can sue your ass and either get it back, and/or put you in jail. Nyah. So there.

But what about content? Said age of which we are purportedly in, says the blogger. What about our pesky thoughts? Since most content is, essentially, ephemera, it is much harder to pin down than real estate, bicycles, wigs or biscuits.

What content do you want own?

I'm repeating myself, I know. But marketing gurus are always telling us that you must repeat something three times before people actually see/hear it.

What do I own? From whence comes my wealth?

And an even better question: Why do I care?

I am forever bugging my students (and was forever bugging my marketing clients and former client/readers in my legal marketing days) to drill down to the "root why" of a situation. "We need to run an ad!" Somebody says. "Why?" you should ask. "To drive sales of the new product!" Ask yourself, "Why?" again. Keep asking "Why?" until you get to one of the root goals of your business, which is usually the provision of value to stockholders; i.e., profit. Most businesses are built on three fundamental "Why"s: owner profit, customer value and employee satifaction. Screw the pooch on any of those three, and you're dead. Fail to link any process to any one of those, and you're wasting time.

Meanwhile, back at my point...

Why should you care what you own? What's the point of aquiring wealth? Remember -- wealth is what Stan's got after he takes care of all his biscuits, bedclothes and bicycles. And why, especially, should you care if you own

a thought.

For example, the thought: 1-4-5

Three numbers in a row. Big deal. But if you write them: I - IV - V

Many musicians will know that you're talking about a basic blues progression; twelve-bar blues, usually. Play that on a piano or guitar, and it will sound very familiar to you. The basis for hundreds, if not thousands, of blues, rock, jazz and other pop songs. Same thing with the "Bo Diddly" riff; a particular set of chords and a specific rhythm that's been used in bunches of songs over the years.

Again, patient reader, I assume you are asking me to get to the freakin' point.

It is simply this: what would have happened to music had somebody copyrighted I-IV-V or the peculiar, "bump-diddy-bump-diddy... bump-bump" of the Bo Diddly riff?

And here's the next thought in the chain. When you buy a piece of content -- a book, video, song, legal opinion, ticket to a sporting event, whatever -- what part of it do you own?

What do you own when you buy content?

Clearly you DO own the right to enjoy it yourself in the medium provided. Clearly you DO NOT own the right to profit from the retooling or redistribution of the exact medium you purchased in a way that robs the copyright owner of value.

So we've got two book-ends; the "nobody will argue with these two ends of the spectrum" goal posts. Listening to music I purchased on a CD on that CD is fine. Making a copy for my own specific use on a casette tape is also OK. Selling that tape to somebody else? Not OK. Giving it away is also not OK. We're clear on that, eh?

It's all the stuff in the middle that's weird. And it's because ideas are so fluid. Because creativity and content feed on freedom the way Stan feeds on biscuits. For example:

Let's say I write a song. I own the copyright of the lyrics and the music. If you want to perform that song for money, you need to pay me a royalty. That's fair. But what if you want to perform it for free? Well... then you don't. But to learn that song, you need to buy sheet music. Right? Which makes me some money. So... wait... you don't need sheet music? Because you just listen to the song at your friend's house (who paid for the CD) over and over and keep practicing on your guitar until you can do the song on your own.

And then you perform it for free. And I, as the copyright holder, get nothing. No remuneration. Nada. And you... by performing my wildly popular song, you gain credence (maybe even mojo) with those young hipsters who love my crafty tunes. You begin to get followers. Groupies. Hangers-on. A posse, perhaps. And, eventually, you begin to get offers to be paid for your own music. Which nobody was originally interested in.

All because you learned to play my song that you never paid me jack for.


Of course it is. Because, at the same time, you were spreading the meme of my song. If you believe -- even for a moment -- that the playing of my song helped you get famous, then the reverse must be true; that the playing of my song was good for me, too. Because as your fame grew, so would the value of people hearing you play my tune.

Content is not a fixed asset. When you sing a song, it doesn't get "un-sung" somewhere else. It's not like Stan's biscuit. Just because Stan sings "The Long and Winding Road," doesn't mean I don't want to anymore. In fact, the more people who sing it, the more people may want to sing it. Content is more like fire than like grain.

What scares so many of the people involved in the production of various content media is that the pace of change in the technologies surrounding distribution of those media is rendering the meaning of "value" porous.

For example -- books. I love books. L-L-L-Love 'em. All kinds of books. Hardcover, paperback, old, new, fiction, non-fiction, antique, glossy, paper and eBooks. But, in the past, very little of the payment that readers forked over for books went to the content creators; the authors. Because the process of finding, proofing, editing, printing, publishing, shipping, stocking, shelving and selling books is hugely expensive. And writing a book, frankly, isn't.

But now... after all the writing is done... I can push a book at you for roughly...


What do you own when you buy a book?

Do you own the paper? Do you own the words? Do you own the right to read it out loud to your kids? How many times? Can you read it out loud at the library? What about in school? Can you loan it to friends? Can you resell it? Can you sell tickets to folks for them to hear you read it?

Do you own the thoughts?

I've bought dozens of marketing and business books. Many of them have very similar thoughts. Could any of the authors sue the others? I don't know. I doubt it. Most of the "thoughts" are basic, old-school marketing fundamentals, often dressed up in new metaphors and funny anecdotes.

I've read dozens of fantasy novels. Many of them have very similar plots. Same question... Same answer.

Monks used to have to copy out books one at a time. It used to be that very few people could read. Now, just about everybody can read. And information flows from a couple hundred million Web sites in billions of page hits a day. And it keeps changing and growing and getting more interesting and funkier all the time, what with RSS and wikis and tagging and wireless and the semantic web and Web 2.0...

Marshall McLuhan said "The medium is the message." That means more than you think it does. We'll do a whole rant (or 12) on that one at some point. But we're going to be "post-McLuhan" pretty soon. We're going to be "post-medium." Content will be without borders. Those businesses and entities that make the mistake that Warner/Chappell did -- trying to get between people and ideas -- will lose. Because someone else will open the gate.

Content's not grain, people. It's not even water. It's fire. It doesn't need to be portioned out. And if you try to control it, you will get burned. Your best bet? Feed the flames, baby. The bigger the bonfire, the farther away they can see it, and the more hotdogs you can cook.

People will always pay for good content. And you shouldn't stop trying to bring down the real pirates. But we need to get beyond the idea of "owning" content the same way we "own" biscuits.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Great Truth... Bunny Style

No deep thoughts right now. I've been down with some kind of plague for three days and the deepest thought I'm capable of is, "Yes... the tree can go in a different room this year."

This site is just fun, smart and good. Check it out. Many fine tips from the bunny at Brian's Guide.

The one to the left (you know... the one you're looking at right now) is my favorite. Made me laugh my tuchus off. If you don't know why, see this. Warning to anyone over the age of 9 and those with a Y-chromosome; you may need sunglasses and Zanex to view the site properly.

If you don't know what a tuchus is, see this.

Thanks to
Hazelfaern for the pointer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

"It's All in Your Head, I Guess."

My day job is working as Manager of Creative Services at OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center. One night a week I teach a class on the history of advertising at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD). CCAD is a liberal arts college for art students. They have an advertising major for students who want to use their skills to go on to become designers at ad agencies, in marketing departments, in merchandising, etc.

Two weeks ago, I was talking to a couple of the kids about gaming -- several of them have played World of Warcraft, which I played for a few months back last year -- and I mentioned that I was also starting to look more deeply into Second Life. I dropped out of WoW because my favorite part of gaming is being the Game Master (often called Dungeon Master, DM or GM). In Wow, the opportunities for true role-playing on the part of players are kinda slim, since all the raw content is developed by the programmers. You can stay in character, you can form a guild, you can team up with buddies... but in the end... you're an actor, and they (the game company) are the writers/designers/directors. That's not a bad thing. It's just not what I'm as interested in.

So I've been checking out Second Life. It is less of a game and more of a "platform" or a system. The publishers provide a "world" and the tools to interact with it:

  • an in-game 3D modeling system

  • clothing/skin modifcations based on Photoshop / Paintshop files

  • character animations based on Poser

  • object programming via a dedicated scripting language similar to Java

You create an account and an avatar and start running around in the "game," called SL by most of the players. You can interact with other players via chat and IM. You can build stuff using any of the tools I mentioned above and sell them using an in-game economy based on Linden Dollars (LD) that are exchangeable for $USD. Quite a few folks are making good money by doing stuff in SL that other players find valuable: buying, improving and reselling plots of land; creating houses and other structures; crafting clothes and tattoos; programming games, objects and inhuman avatars; designing more realistic avatars and character animations; providing in-game services, including dancing, gambling, hosting of events.

When I told my students about this, a couple scoffed at the idea of paying real money to dress up, house or otherwise improve the life of your avatar. Which led to a wee rant on my part.

We'd just spent a whole semester going over American advertising, and how to look for certain trends that can be seen to have "flowed" through almost a century of marketing. We've looked at scores of print, TV and radio ads and sought common psychological, artistic and marketing devices. We've examined the "wisdom" of pundits who have claimed -- at various times since the 1850's -- that "everything is going to hell in a handbasket" and that "it's all so different." When, in fact, many of the same themes, ideas and tricks that worked in the 19th century are still working today.

So I told them I was a bit disappointed to hear them poking fun at a new kind of entertainment media without really thinking about it.

"How," I asked them, "is playing a character in an online world different -- in any significant way -- from reading a fiction book?"

No response. Which isn't unusual. The class starts at 6:45 pm and most of them are either starving, dying to go to bed or both.

"Come on," I prodded. "You pay good money for a hard-cover fiction book. $17 on Amazon for the new Harry Potter. All that does is put a bunch of pretend characters in your head. Ones you have no control over. In SL you can talk to people. Create things. Build a house. Make friends. Learn about programming, scripting, animation and 3D modeling. You can improve your social skills. You can learn to be a game master. You can be the other gender. You can flirt. You can earn money. $17 will buy you almost 2 months worth of time in-game on SL. How long does it take to read a Harry Potter hardcover?"

More silence. One of them finally agreed that there wasn't much of a difference. Her response, "It's all in your head, I guess."

One of the best library blogs out there, The Shifted Librarian, is covering a symposium on gaming in libraries. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Lots of good comments about gaming and how it interacts with the world of books, information, libraries, literacy, society, etc. One of my favorite OCLC people, George Needham, is on a couple of the panels and has some good comments, too.

The reason I bring up the "Gaming in Libraries" symposium is that it mirrors my conversation with my students, and many thoughts I've been having about where we're headed with the confluence of content, social interaction, games, role-playing and education.

Stephen King, in his book "On Writing" says that writing is essentially telepathy. The writer projects his/her thoughts into the reader, across boundaries of space and time. I agree. But if that's the case, then email is telepathy, too. And so is IM. And the phone. And WoW. And SL. And the sharing of tags in Technorati and

All these ways of putting my thoughts into your head. And getting yours back. Read my book. Join my dark elf guild. Buy a Photoshop tatto I made for your avatar. Give me good feedback on eBay.

Reply to this post.

It's all in our heads, I guess.

And if you're determined to be a creative type... ain't that a happy, happy thought?

I love this stuff. Love it. Love it. Love it. I just have to remind myself (as I tried to do with my students, and as the folks at the gaming symposium are trying to do for their libraries) to keep my head as wide open as possible.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Google Axon. Advertising Dopamine.

OK. Bear with me. This will take awhile to get where I'm going.

Giant, long introduction to the point I'll get around to making eventually...

Alan Turing -- who invented the idea of the modern computer (sometimes called a "Turing Machine"), and whose first real stab at which is shown here -- basically said that given a recording medium big enough, and enough time, you could record and solve any problem that could be stated clearly. That's a gross oversimplification, but it'll do for my modest blog.

Last October, we hit the 60th anniversary of John von Neumann's initial proposal for the "universal computing machine" -- i.e., the computer. Von Neumann took Turing's ideas and turned them into a reality -- a machine that could process different equations, rather than solving only one. A programmable computer, that is. The first use for which was to work on the equations for the atomic bomb.

60 years ain't a very long time, and look what we've got today?

George Dyson has written two really interesting articles, one called Turing's Cathedral and one called The Universal Library that deal with how far we've come since Turing's initial thoughts on the subject, and where we're headed; specifically with regards to what Google, and Internet search in general, is doing with our "thoughts" on the Web.

Dyson does a good -- and admirably brief -- job of describing the history of how Turing  and von Neumann's ideas have gotten us to modern computing, the Web and Google.  But I want to pull out a couple passages in order to make a point.

First:Google is building a new, content-addressable layer overlying the von Neumann matrix underneath. The details are mysterious but the principle is simple: it's a map. And, as Dutch (and other) merchants learned in the sixteenth century, great wealth can be amassed by Keepers of the Map.

OK. So Google is mapping the Web. Big deal. We knew that. I've heard the metaphor before, and ain't really surprised to hear it again. I'm not sure I buy it, as a map is fixed, and search results change, not just based on criteria, but daily, based on changes to the data landscape. But Dyson goes on to talk about the three types of computing calculations that can be done, and how most computers are built to deal with "computable problems;" those with questions that can be easily asked and solved (if not easily solved, at least being predictably solveable). The second type, "non-computable problems" have questions that can be asked, but where we know we have no way to solve them.

The third type are most interesting, most fecund, and most appropriate for creative types like us:

...questions whose answers are, in principle, computable, but that, in practice, we are unable to ask in unambiguous language that computers can understand.

The example he gives is the question, "What makes something look like a cat?" A child can draw a circle, six lines and a couple dots, and almost anyone will say, "That's a nice cat." But to get a finite answer that would distinguish that solution from, say, "What makes something look like a mouse," would be very hard. In this case, as Dyson puts it:

A solution finds the problem, not the other way around. The world starts making sense, and the meaningless scribbles (and a huge number of neurons) are left behind. This is why Google works so well. All the answers in the known universe are there, and some very ingenious algorithms are in place to map them to questions that people ask. (emphasis mine)

And at this point, while reading his essay, my brain had a "Rubix Cube" moment. Which is what I call it when various things all start twisting around and reassembling in a different array than they were a few moments ago. I'm not saying all the colors line up (in my brain, sometimes the yellow side and green side do, but rarely any more than that), but something certainly changes.

I studied some child psychology and development in school. Not much. Just a few courses. But I do remember that the human brain starts out with lots more open neual pathways than it ends up with. Babies have (if I remember correctly) something like 10-times as many neural connections as adults. As they grow and learn and try to do things, certain pathways become strengthened -- i.e., "putting spoon in mouth to get food" beats out "putting spoon in ear to get food" and the latter set of neural paths eventually dies out.

[Aside: we also learned that the part of the brain responsible for processing the "don't do that!" response to painful activities is the same part that processes the response to trying do do things in a new way after all those initial, baby-to-youngster, extra neural pathways have died out. That is, our response to change is physiologically very similar to our response to pain. We don't want to do things that might hurt us, and we don't want to do things in a new way, because it might hurt us. My prof explained that this is a survival mechanism; if you do things in the way you've done them before, it probably won't kill you, because it hasn't already. Problem is, from a creativity standpoing, doing the same thing might as well be death.]

Dyson goes on to talk about machine intelligence, the possibility that Google may be the basis for the first worldwide artificial intelligence, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria. OK. Not those last two. But, while I think it's interesting and, as a sci-fi fan, not boring or laughable, AI is not something innately predictable or that I want to focus on.

I do, however, want to focus on the idea that Google is providing a worldwide brain already. Not an intelligence, per se. But a digital analog (I love saying that) to the physical, juicy meat and chemicals that make up our own grey matter and allow us to process our own biological questions, searches, answers and thoughts.

For the love of Pete, Havens... Get to the point.

OK. OK. Calm down. Here's the point.

I have a friend at work whom I respect very much. She's one of our web team managers. Loves wikis (as do I), but hates blogs. Because, to her, they are, basically, unrestrained "thoughts," posted to the Web. I'm paraphrasing her, but she finds most of what she reads on blogs to be drivel.

As do I. But I love blogs. Why?

Because they let everyone post their drivel, and some of that drivel ain't drivel to me. I don't care about the 9,000,000 teens who are blogging on what they wore to the blah blah blah. Or about many entertainment blogs. Or about hundreds of millions of other blogs out there. But I care what John Battelle says abourt search. And I care what Bill Ives says about KM. And I care what my friend Jenn writes in her poetry.

Again, I hear you say, "Get on with it. What's the point here? That everybody likes different stuff on the Web? We knew that."

Yes, but...

If Google, by searching the Web in finer and finer increments -- and, more recently, printed materials and other media -- provides a methodology for me to determine which thoughts (for words, which are mostly what we're searching for and through, are thoughts) out there are going to help me be more productive, creative, happy, healthy, etc... then isn't Google acting as a kind of meta brain, by which everyone will be connected to those thoughts?

I'm not positing artificial intelligence here. I'm not imagining some great, Ozymandian force, rising up under the Google campus and causing us to buy more porn, redo our mortgages and connect with classmates. I'm theorizing that this "new brain" is making the aggregate cognitive abilities of everyone connected to it more... something.

Faster? Happier? Productive? Worried? Distracted? Creative?

I'm not sure yet. Some people I know are very distracted by the Web. I know I can be. Some are very empowered in their jobs and personal life and hobbies. There's so much more that we can know in a few seconds or minutes than we could even a few years ago at all, or in a time span that was prohibitive. And it keeps getting better. Or at least faster, more, funkier, distractiver, etc.

Was that the big point?

Almost. Sort of. Yeah. In brief:

  1. Google (and search in general) is a way to connect our thoughts across time and distance

  2. Tools like blogs and wikis allow more people to put thoughts out there.

  3. As Dyson says, providing a robust manner to search a "von Neumann matrix" (the Web) in a random fashion is a good way to solve the "third kind" of logic problem; i.e., rather than try to program a computer to answer the asked question, "What does a cat look like?" you search the Web for decriptions or pictures of cats until you have an idea in your head that satisfies your personal contextual need.

  4. By searching others' thoughts, we find ways to use them to solve our own problems

  5. By posting our thoughts, we incrementally improve the matrix (i.e., we help the Web "learn")

But here's an ancillary point.

How appropriate is it that advertising is Google's "dopamine" in this "big brain" metaphor?

I know, I know. The big search window isn't "advertising supported." The "natural" search results are based on some insanely complex calculations that are based on key words, inbound links, how often your page changes, etc. etc. That being said, Google pays for all that with advertising. That and that being said, many of the best "natural" links are buoyed by SEO strategy that is, essentially, advertising (or at least marketing) supported.

In our metaphor, then: advertising/marketing = positive neural reinforcement.

Which is true in reality when we examine how the Web works. Those sites that are visited more often are more likely to survive. More traffic equates to either more revenue -- for commercial sites, that's the definition of life -- or more interest. If you have readers, sponsors, friends, authors, contributors... whatever... your site will be much more likely to flourish than if you have fewer.

I'm not saying that the model is bad. I use Google a couple dozen times a day at least. It's a great tool. Once you learn about how to narrow and expand your searches, you can get around a lot of the crap that's force-fed by SEO "strategies." But I am saying that if we're going to have a global brain that's going to help us connect to each other's thoughts, maybe we need to be thinking about what the chemical is that stimulates that brain.

Because, if we work the metaphor backwards, an advertising model might be akin to a lima bean advertiser telling your kid, "I'll give you a dollar to stick your fork full of peas in your ear," every time he's trying to eat peas.