Although word leaked out early, Google will today press ahead with a launch of what it describes as a "print" version of the Internet.
Google Print apes Amazon's "Search Inside The Book" feature, where you can sorta, kinda, give yourself the illusion that you're in a real library. A search term pops up references to the term in a number of books with which Google Inc. has made the pre-requisite arrangements. This is a narrow selection, naturally governed by commercial imperatives, and these commercial imperatives are not to be dismissed lightly. Unlike a real library or archive, those relationships are purely commercial. So searching for say, "Kant" or "Usury" in Google Print will give you a very different set of answers to what you'd get from an authoritative archive.
Quite unlike a real library.
And here's the rub. The fact that Google now "sucks" is in a large part not Google's fault: Google simply reflects what it can see, and most of the Web is simply invisible to Google, as it now lies behind closed doors. Google's aggressive, but essentially dumb robots can only get so far. We're painfully aware that Google's lack of specificity leaves its robots chomping through thin air, dead pages, or trackbacks, more often than not.
Here's why we feel so disappointed.
When "the Internet" was unveiled to a doughnut-eating public a decade ago, we were promised unlimited access to vistas of encyclopedic knowledge. Every body would be connected to every thing, and we would never be short of an answer. What with the abundance of information, and the costs of transporting information approaching zero, the world would never be the same again.
Of course, a decade on, we know that real economics have prevailed. Information costs money. Those transport costs certainly aren't zero. And faced with a choice of a million experts, people gravitate towards experts with a good track record: i.e., for better or worse, paid journalists, qualified doctors or other centers of expertise.
Taxonomies also have been proved to have value: archivists can justify a smirk as manual directory projects dmoz floundered - true archivists have a far better sense of meta-data than any computerized system can conjure. If you're in doubt, befriend a librarian, and from the resulting dialog, you'll learn to start asking good questions. Your results, we strongly suspect, will be much more fruitful than any iterative Google searches.
So this leaves us with a question, which is how has the failure of "the Internet" to live up to its promise not been investigated in more depth? We've seen an economic bubble come and go, based on "the Internet", but no one has really asked where the value went. So how come our "Internet" went AWOL, while we weren't looking? Where did it go, exactly?
To fill this vacuum, we have a theory. It's completely fatuous of course, but in the absence of any serious critical analysis from the techno-boosterists, we feel compelled to present it nonetheless.
There must be, quite simply, a quantum amount of Internet utility. What was great then, in 1994, must surely be equally good now, and equally useful now, in 2004. And although the Internet in 1994 presented the inquisitive punter with an odd but promising mulch of academic riches and egomaniacs, the Internet of 2004, filled as it is with trackback garbage, mindless lists and hucksters must be of equal value. After all, things are always getting better, right?
And so it must follow that the medium must retain its value, otherwise the hype, for all these years, will have been an awful waste of our time. Hence, as the real archives of value disappeared from the public Internet, we saw some really rather frantic attempts to promote fads such as "blogging" in their place. (Yesterday's "portal" is today's "blogger", who is tomorrow's ... well, who knows what it will be called. Surely something suitably earthy, grassroots and populist).
Whatever it's called, it doesn't really matter. What's important is to keep the faith in a single "Internet" alive.
Of course, around the world, people simply pick up communication tools and fashion their own communication networks. At a convivial dinner recently, John Perry Barlow asked me why no one had written a story about how the most powerful organizations in the world were dependent on the most awful, antiquated and dysfunctional technology. Well, I ventured (to a deafening silence), maybe they were making ruthless choices, and really weren't too slavish about following techno-fads. Maybe the answer is in the question.
The disappearance of "the Internet" - in its c.1994 incarnation isn't too much to worry about. It never really existed, and what we must value is the information archives we have now. If in doubt - ask a librarian, while you can still find one. ®