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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:


Imagine describing Google to someone 50 years ago. No matter where you go, you're never out of its reach. You can ask it anything, anytime, and it will be there. That sounds like science fiction, the person might say. Or, it sounds a little like God.

The Internet is arguably the first non-deity in human history to be ascribed with ubiquitous sentience. Its reach is already worldwide, but with the emergence of wireless technology, or Wi-Fi, it seems even more widespread. "Using radio technology, Wi-Fi will provide high-speed connection from your laptop computer or [palm pilot] to the Internet from anywhere—McDonald's, the beach or your library," wrote Thomas Friedman in the New York Times earlier this summer." You can learn the average annual rainfall in Myanmar from a coffee shop in Topeka, or check last night's baseball scores from Siberia.

This omnipresent and omniscient entity has people saying some religious things, as Friedman noted. He quoted a Wi-Fi developer who told him: "Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too."

Friedman's point—striking the theme of most of his columns—was merely that Google is another way the world is getting more connected (only one-third of 200 million daily queries to Google come from the U.S., he reported) and thus worrisome for an empire with enemies. But by putting in that quote—and with an editor titling the column "Is Google God?"—readers and bloggers starting thinking about theology.

The first few blogged responses I found seemed more worried about overhyping Google than underrating God. "Google just a tool," wrote one. "Google does NOT know what you want. You …. 'help' Google to find what you want." A better question than "Is Google God?", wrote another, is: "Is Google wise?" The blogger observes that "the wisdom of the answer depends on the wisdom of the question."

Another blogger set up this chart to compare Google and God. God is omnipresent; Google is housed in California. God is eternal, while Google was founded in 1998. And so forth. (One respondent was not impressed by the discrepancies, and wrote: "I say Google is as good a god as any!")

The most useful response I found was from blogger Satya Prabhakar. "The answer to Friedman's question ['Is Google God'?] is rather simple: No. Because Google knows but doesn't understand. … Google's ability of metareasoning is limited to one level and it cannot by itself metareason about its metareasoning." Prabhakar goes on to praise "/freedom of exploration" and "recursive self-reflection" as the route to wisdom. That's a whole other weblog, but the point about the difference between information and understanding is important. "Knowledge about is merely the accumulation of mediated information, whereas knowledge of includes intimate understanding, seasoned judgment, and active participation," writes Quentin Schultze in Habits of the High-Tech Heart (which I've written about here and here). Schultze points out that the Hebrew word for intimacy (yedia or yedah) means "knowledge," (as in, "Adam knew Eve"). That's a nuance that has long been lost, and seems even more remote in the Information Age. I wrote last week that the Internet can't know something the way you do when you say you "know it in my heart." The consummate hope of Christianity, Paul says, is "to know fully, even as I am fully known." To know fully does not mean to have Myanmar's annual rainfall handy. And it is impossible to be fully known by Google. Hype to the contrary illustrates that the Internet can bring about knowledge and folly at the same time.

  1. Last week's weblog compared Google with a brain and pondered artificial intelligence. Vernor Vinge's 1993 essay The Singularity, an influential treatise on computers and artificial intelligence, is an interesting read on its tenth anniversary.
  2. Friedman's column on Google
  3. Google and ethics: making moral judgments in search listings, from Wired
  4. The politics of Google's Page Rank, from Salon
  5. A watchdog of Google's methods: Google-watch.org


The Internet is an instrument of isolation, reducing real interaction among people and spreading solitude. But the way television tells it, the Internet makes everyone hold hands and sing. It can even pinch hit for a romantic lover. Two recent spots spread the myth of Internet intimacy. In one, for Yahoo's new DSL service, a man sits at his computer and installs his new DSL software. As the technology serves up sports highlights and movie trailers, he starts to fall in love with it. Literally: the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" starts to play, the lights dim, a fire flares up in the fireplace behind him. If I saw right, he actually caresses the top of the monitor. Whether the man would be better off going about this routine with a woman rather than a plastic box is left unexplored. In a spot for eBay called "Traffic Jam," which rips off Frank Sinatra's "I did it my way" (now it's "Do it Ebay"), a woman rejoices over selling something online. She bursts out of her RV, which is stranded in traffic on the freeway, and is suddenly surrounded by backup dancers from other cars. In truth, if we spent less time on the Internet and freeways, we would have more time and opportunity for actual human contact, for romance and public gathering (not to deny that e-mail can foster some connections, as Andrew Sullivan describes below). Instead, TV says, these two marks of "progress" chase away our loneliness rather than making it worse.

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