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September 15, 2007

do you moon-google?

google moon.jpg There are some deep, perhaps obvious, linkages between writing or appreciating poetry and writing or understanding computer code. In fact, my friend and colleague Eavan Boland has a poem, called "Code" about Rear Admiral Grace ("Amazing Grace") Hopper, who was responsible for the conceptions underlying the computer programming language COBOL, including the notion that "programs could be written in a language that was close to English rather than in machine code or languages close to machine code."*

In addition, in 1952, Hopper wrote the world's first compiler for a programming language, using the A-0 language. Boland begins her poem by recognizing that relation between the manipulators of different codes, addressing Grace Hopper, "Poet to poet." (You can find the poem in Against Love Poetry.)

Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has one of the most prestigious and active Computer Science departments in the world. Perhaps the most prestigious. I get a few CS students each year who take a poetry class with me. It always seems to be out of interest rather than the need to fulfill a requirement, and it is usually a humbling experience. For me, that is.

As a professor you get used to meeting a lot of intelligent, capable young people. But, so stunning are the analytical capacities of some of these Stanford CS students, that in my darker moments they feel to me a bit like a set of politely unshaven Martians doing fieldwork amongst a tribe of troglodytes. They think differently, and often more intently, than humanists do, and they "think language" from an entirely different, and very illuminating, angle. For example, recognizing complex verbal patterns which remain hidden to many other eyes seems seems to come beautifully easily to them.

Today, I find that I have been thinking about the ways, material and imaginative, in which computer scientists have had an impact on my own scholarly and personal life. Two Stanford CS grad students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, started a research project at the university back in January 1996. That evolved into something which was probably good, innovative code but grisly branding: "Backrub", a system that "checked backlinks to estimate a site's importance."*

Here's the "Backrub" homepage, complete with dorky boiler-plate ("a 'web-crawler' designed to traverse the web" — what else can something called a web-crawler do but traverse the web?") and touchingly authentic apologetics ("type in top box, ignore cgi.bin error"):


Mercifully, "Backrub"'s front end soon disappeared, shortly leading to the emergence of Brin's and Page's Google™ (a misspelling of "googol", 10 to the power of 100). Ten years ago today, Brin and Page registered the domain name "google.com". I wonder if anyone audacious is going to notice that their lock on that domain name is set to expire on 14 September 2011 and go for the gold by back-ordering it? Good luck if you are, chum.

Here is a screen shot of Brin's and Page's homepage for their newly-titled websearcher from later in 1997.

1997 google.jpg

In the same year, they published a paper, "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine" (1997), which they described as "an in-depth description of our large-scale web search engine — the first such detailed public description we know of to date." Google was planting its flag.

They incorporated as a private company, Google Inc., on 7 September 1998. Here is that year's homepage, now very close in all its simple essentials to what users see today. The most obvious, and telling, difference is that leaping, Yahoo™-modelled exclamation mark, which was soon to fall unmourned off the Google! logo, like a rusty fender off an old car.

google.stanford.edu 1998.jpg

Paul Buchheit (Google employee #23), one of the main engineers behind my mail-program of choice, Gmail, came up with the corporate mantra "Don't be evil" in mid-2001 when the company's engineers were trying to hash out what exactly the company's corporate philosophy was. It must have an oddly different ring in the post-9/11 world than it did when Buchheit thought of it.

Perhaps the brainstorming session when Buchheit made his suggestion was connected with the filing on 2 July 2001 of the main Google patent with the US Patents and Trademarks Office: "Method for node ranking in a linked database". The abstract announces dryly that: "The method is particularly useful in enhancing the performance of search engine results for hypermedia databases, such as the world wide web, whose documents have a large variation in quality."

On the patent, which needless to say I looked up on Google's Patent Search page, Lawrence Page is listed as the "inventor" and, most interestingly, the "assignee" is "The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University", as it is in the European version of the patent. (According to the USPTO, "The assignee, when the patent is assigned to him or her, becomes the owner of the patent and has the same rights that the original patentee had.")

Ah, now I know where the money for all those palm trees, each more lovingly tended than a giraffe, on Stanford's Palm Drive comes from. One tree is said to cost the equivalent of an entire undergraduate education, but that must not seem much of a problem if you own a big chunk of the Google patent.

By freakish coincidence, as Google Patent Search also reveals, in 1998, the year when Google incorporated, one Constance Carroll, fumbling at the keyboard, accidentally filed a patent for a "Swim google [sic] retaining device for swim wear".)

The true and flourishing Google went public on the New York Stock Exchange in August 2004; and in 2005, it announced "a partnership with NASA Ames Research Center [at Moffett Field in Mountain View] to build up to 1 million square feet of offices and work on research projects involving large-scale data management, nanotechnology, distributed computing, and the entrepreneurial space industry."

Powered by some 450,000 servers bound together into clusters at data farms around the world, last year the company earned over $3 billion. By this summer, approaching the date of its 10th birthday, it had 13,748 full-time employees, as well as at least 50.8% of the market share of web searches.

In less than a decade "Google" went from being a misspelling to a brand name which had achieved the ultimate form of public legitimacy — it had become the common word for an overarching activity or process. In this case, the activity is "searching for something or someone online" as in the phrase "I googled you [or 'myself']". It may be significant that, like earlier successes of this kind, such as "hoover" or "xerox", "Google" is disyllabic. (Surely, too, one has recently heard of people "iPodding along the street", that is, "going along the street listening to their iPod™.) By contrast, I wonder if anyone has anyone ever even dreamed of saying or thinking: "I microsofted the document"?

It may also be some kind of a suggestive index of the character of contemporary life that whereas "hoover" and "xerox" can be used both as verbs (processes) and as nouns (objects), "google" seems destined to remain forever in the etherial dimension of verb-ness and never to be likely to acquire the materiality of the noun-like.

Contrast this phenomenal rate of growth, as measured in both strictly economic and in mass-cultural terms, with that of Microsoft Corporation. Founded in 1975, by 1985 its major successes were MS-DOS (1981) and the Microsoft Mouse (1983). The first version of Windows lay just ahead....

Where is Google at 10? The company's connection with NASA appears to be the focus of much energy at the moment, as if, having conquered the earth, Google were now shooting for the moon. "Google Earth" has recently added a stunning "Night Sky" feature, and, within the last few days, the "Google Lunar X Prize" had been announced. Any group which is able to land a rover on the moon capable (after surviving the landing) of travelling at least 500 meters and sending high-resolution video, still images and other data back to earth will receive $20 million from Google.

[PSThe symbolic suturing of Google and NASA was strengthened still further shortly after I wrote this post. Apollo 11 took off for the moon on 16 July 1969 and the "Eagle" landed there four days later on 20 July 1969. On or about 20 July 2007, Google launched "Google Moon" to celebrate this anniversary. Now, they have launched a fully revamped version. An engineer explains on the Google Lat Long blog: "we've released a new version of Google Moon, one that fully eclipses its predecessor. This update brings higher-resolution map imagery, text search, and photos and stories from every Apollo landing. We even included Street View-style panoramas of the moon's surface, taken by the Apollo astronauts ... something you won't see anywhere else. And last but certainly not least, we tossed in scientific charts that are good enough for actual mission planning and science classrooms alike." This is fascinating as a resource. But of course it also constitutes another stage in the company's evolving myth, or narrative, of itself. That currently involves developing as many links as possible between Google and that huge lump of grit, our beautiful planetary satellite, which, as Auden wrote in 1969: "still queens the Heavens | as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at."]

Google Maps tells me that, as the sedate humanities professor drives, I live about 1.72 miles from the Googleplex in Mountain View. For locals such as myself, the company puts a lot of pressure on the real estate market, which is nice if you got lucky and not so nice if you did not. (It strikes me that unwittingly Siri and I moved into our house right around the time that Sergey and Larry were putting up that "Google!" homepage. The city has a great free WiFi service thanks to Google, and there is also the city library's "Googlemobile" (not to be confused with the "Google Mobile" service) which chugs round the neighbourhoods in an effort to get books into the hands of the city's kids.

View Larger Map

To the green-gilled horror of many of Silicon Valley's mega-rich, Brin and Page have also just secured the almost unique privilege of using the NASA-spec facilities at our other local "sight", the Moffett Field Airbase (see above), which once boasted the world's largest wooden-frame building, to take-off, land and park their customized Boeing 767-200.

This aircraft, formerly a humble mule in the Qantas fleet, was upgraded by Brin and Page so that it can now carry about 50 passengers in a fuselage which is fitted with two staterooms with adjoining lavatories and a shower, a large sitting-and-dining area at the aft, while, at the back, there is room for 12 to 16 first-class seats for the convenience of guests or employees.

(In fairness, the plane probably cost Page and Brin about a third of the price of a new, standard-issue , corporate Gulfstream 550 jet and it will carry, and sleep, more people than the latter plane does.)

Any way, why begrudge either of them this physically large but financially relatively small luxury? "Envy", as Lincoln Kirstein once told me, "is really stupid." A person without a vice is indeed a sinister creature. And, from providing a free WiFi service to making such a vast amount of the world's information digitally available to me and to millions of others, what other company or institution — aside from Stanford itself, which, as we saw, once fed, and is now partially fed by, Google — than the one owned and run by these two tough, super-reflective CS Martians has done anything near as much to help me with what I want to do?

It looks to me like a viable example of the humanistic-capitalist complex actually at work. And, just at the moment, is there anything better on offer?

Posted by njenkins at September 15, 2007 06:59 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins