Everyone these days talks about search. It used to be an Internet term and back in the day we just called it search engine stuff. Later on it got to be known as ‘Googling’ something or someone (not to be confused with ‘goggling‘ someone – though there are some commonalities).
Now they are talking about it a lot in all marketing schools, social and political institutions, and everywhere else. Almost every small business-person I have talked to for the last 2 years has mentioned ‘search.” Even newspapers are trying to get into the search marketing field.
Personally, I think the word should be “find.” That is the real key. What is turning things over, in business as well as in culture and life, is the phenomenal power to find things you could never find before.
Find what? Just about everything. That is its mystic power over us every time we go online, and its seduction as well. At times it seems like Pandora’s box might have been opened. At other times it feels a lot like a deep reading of Goethe’s Faust. Knowledge exploding all around us – a lot of it way over our heads or too much to stomach – but there anyway. Yet power – power to get those very unique things we could never find in a store, or to snoop on friends or relatives or neighbors we were always curious about, or simply find instructions on how to program the VCR we lost the book for 5 years ago (with the exact make and model). As we all know by now, the list goes on and on and on…
Let me respond to the book The Search, How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, by John Battelle. Perhaps the most powerful statement in the book to me is this: “…in the near future, search will metastasize from its origins on the PC-centric web and be let loose on all manner of devices.” (p. 253).
It is an understated bombshell that amplifies many of the other far-reaching, and potentially revolutionary, statements in his book. I’ll say more in a minute.
First let’s do a quick overview. Ostensibly the book is about Google – the icon of search engines at this time – and about the rise and growth of the company as well as the industry and the technology that powers search engines in general.
The book is also about the new and growing economies that are powered by search – especially the long-tail businesses and interests I wrote about conceptually in reviewing Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail . Good examples are the millions of ‘long tail’ small businesses, tradespeople, craftsmen, enterprises and ideas that are found through routine searches on Google or some other search engine. Add to that the sellers, ‘stores,’ distributors and cyber-flea-marketers that are found on the sophisticated search engines on of EBay, Amazon, or hundreds of other small-marketplace networks. Top it off with the vast networks of yet-to-be-found economies, families, communities, subcultures, public records, niche cyber-societies and who-knows-what-else which will be accessible very shortly as the search phenomenon takes on even more power and momentum.
But let’s go on beyond business-oriented sections of The Search (which I am fascinated with) and get past all the Google-hype and into the chapters about privacy issues. There you start to get to a matter of much more seismic importance: the effect of a search company’s stated goal of indexing all recorded human knowledge. Even if they only pull off half of it, or a tenth for that matter, the effect is incredible.
As I read these chapters (and in the intervening days performed hundreds of searches on dozens of quests) it appeared more evident than ever that our whole sense of identity and community in this life is going through a dramatic change. We are becoming transparent, whether we like it or not. Very, very transparent.
Battelle talks about this in his chapters about how our ‘digital private lives’ can collide with the public sector’s need for security (Such as with The Patriot Act) – databasing everything it can get hold of from services such as ISP’s and other communications services. While I agree that there should be limits to uncovering personal information that is protected in contractual agreements with communications companies, that is not the issue that got my attention. The real kicker is much more subtle than that.
It dawned on me that there is a ton of information about me (and about you) out there already, not protected by any contracts. Go to Google or any other search engine. Type in your name. If you have a not-too-common first-last-name combination like mine, and if you have been yapping on the Internet as long as I have – there will be all kinds of information – right there in front of everyone’s eyes. If you find out my address, you can also go to Google earth and get a satellite view of my house. You can take that same address and go to zillow.com and see how much it is estimated to be worth. If I bought or sold it in the recent past, you can easily find out what was paid.
Not all of this is new. Much of that is a matter of public record. We have always had public records. (Daily newspapers, such as the one I work for, have been known as ‘newspapers of record‘ ). Much has always been out there. It just took an appraiser to trudge back and forth to the courthouse or a lawyer or private eye to dig through files and pull it all up. It was too cost-prohibitive for the average person to do.
We are now approaching an age where it is very easy for anyone to access it all – just by typing in your name and a few other details if needed – and single you out. Add to the public records the things you have written, blogged, posted, networked or whatever on web sites of any kind. Add also records on newspapers or magazines that went online. Throw in your business web sites (even businesses you used to work for that may have a page 5 years old still indexed in a search engine). Throw in things people might have said about you online or forums you might have participated in (assuming your real name appeared). Feeling transparent yet?
Now go back to Battelle’s statement “…in the near future, search will metastasize from its origins on the PC-centric web and be let loose on all manner of devices.” Think about it. At the present it still takes sitting down to a PC for someone to get at that info. As easy as that is, it is still a little bit difficult.
Now think about when it is all in people’s cars. As they drive down the street, guided by GPS, not only do addresses pop up on the screen or are read by a voice in the machine, but names of the homeowners (public record). If the driver is interested, they speak back to the onboard computer and are told more about that person, gleaned from the vast riches of the online indexes (search engines) that have been storing stuff on you or me for years. By the time the house hunters get to the end of the street they might know more about us and other prospective future neighbors than our best friends do.
Another scenario – one that is already going on in earnest (I use it myself). You are going to a business appointment with someone – to pitch them a chance to participate in a program. You set aside a little time and start searching online. Within 15 -30 minutes you know, from a number of web sites, a lot about their education, their job, their hobbies (if they have won local running events for instance), their networks, and perhaps much more. You may read speeches they made or articles they have written. You come across a cranky letter they wrote to an editor of a paper. You find their family in a genealogical summary. You then walk into that office feeling that you know them well enough to talk like an old acquaintance.
That might be scary – or it might be invigorating. It depends on how you look at it.
I believe this is all leading us to a form of what a previous anthropology professor of mine called “an open-face society.” According to him, these are societies, usually more primitive, where people are much more transparent. They live together in buildings without much privacy, seeing each other in many situations which we more ‘advanced’ cultures consider embarrassing and off-limits. The amazing thing is that they stop noticing the more private aspects of each other’s lives, at least consciously, even though they are right before their eyes. They are accustomed to being more transparent and their cultures and manners prevent them from indulging what we would consider invasive staring or impolite commenting.
Think about it. It is not that much different in a really small town. Think Andy of Mayberry – a small town where people know quite a lot about you, where you came from and what you do each day. It is pretty hard to hide. (Such towns still exist in some parts of the country and yes, you are pretty well known).
One result in such societies is that there is a sort of innocence preserved. People have to somewhat suspend their ‘games’ because most things are open to view by the community. People know most everything about everyone.
Perhaps being known to a much greater degree is not so bad, if you are an honest person. If you do not have to worry about ‘keeping your story straight’ is it so bad for people to be able to find out a lot about you at will?
Many of us are experiencing some that on the Internet. We get found. Our businesses get found. Our life histories get examined. There may not be a lot of people all that interested in us, but that small group who are – find us out. If we are entrepreneurs, business people, or people with a dream, others find out not only about our business, but about us. They see what makes us tick. They glimpse the soul behind the dream.
It gets harder to separate our ‘business’ from our ‘life.’
We are found.
We turn to them with open faces.
It may not be all that bad. It might be really good.