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The tower of Google

Has the digital empire's reach exceeded its remedy?

The tower of Google

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Old dogs don't adjust easily to new tricks, but this one tries. My latest challenge is "branding"-the means by which a politician, inventor, artist, charlatan, or anyone with anything to sell or promote raises his profile above the teeming bits of cyberspace. The good news is that a savvy networker can brand herself for practically nothing. The bad news is, we don't yet know what the bad news is.

My son is learning SEO at his new job. He had to explain what that means: "Search Engine Optimization." In a nutshell, SEO enhances your presence on Google, Bing, etc., so that those looking for what you're offering can find you at the top of the search results. I had no idea there was a whole branch of internet marketing devoted to this. But (to paraphrase 2 Chronicles 16:9) the eyes of Google are running to and fro throughout the cyberworld to give strong support to new information: any change made in a website, any updated blog, any uploaded picture. More action means higher rankings; more links equal more clicks.

In a human brain, the subjects that occupy the most gray matter and form the most connections (synapses) are front and center. The internet is society's brain, continually patrolled by cyberbots that make connections. It's hotly contested ground, and while individuals are quietly working on their SEO, digital forces gear up for a Clash of the Titans.

Early in February, for instance, pulled all their "Buy" buttons from every book published by Macmillan. The dispute was over the pricing of electronic versions, and it's only begun. Years ago, Google began a swashbuckling epic upon the textual seas, scanning thousands of out-of-print, but still under copyright, books, before offering $45 million in exchange for all rights. The case has dragged on since 2005.

More recently, Google announced "Buzz," its new social-networking platform, as a direct challenge to Facebook (aka "The fourth-largest country in the world"). In the same week, the same company told selected markets to get ready for the mother of all broadbands, which promises to deliver one gigabyte per second of information directly to your home or office. What might be possible with such speeds? Don't you want to find out?

The cyber-kings are very successful not just at giving us what we want, but creating our wants. Even while creeping us out.

"It's Google's world; we just live in it" is how announced the giant's latest incursions into social networking and telecommunications. What began as a humble search engine now has a finger-or an elbow-in every digital pie and clearly aims at becoming the one-stop shop. The company motto is "Don't be evil," and to all appearances, management's goal is simply to provide the quickest, easiest way for consumers to meet all their networking needs. J.P. Morgan did the same for American railroads when he bought enough controlling interest to standardize track gauges nationwide. But Morgan never wished, as Google co-founder Sergey Brin has, for the development of a wireless chip to be implanted directly into the human brain. What would that mean but the standardization of human consciousness?

The novelist Mark Helprin writes, "What we tend to forget is that, whatever the equation, collective action should be the servant of individual thoughts, persons, and needs, and not their master as is so often the case." His book Digital Barbarism is a protest against the trampling of copyright law as exhibited in the Google book-scan case. More broadly, it's a cry against the type of collectivism that insists intellectual property is common property-a cry, as Helprin admits, likely to be ignored.

Almost everyone acknowledges the huge potential of the digital revolution for evil and good, but most see the balance as good. Word-slingers like me would be severely hobbled without it. But when the empire's reach exceeds its remedy, who says "Enough!"? The tower-builders on the plain of Shinar found out (see Genesis 11). So might we.

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