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Blown to Bits

Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion

Hal Abelson Ken Ledeen Harry Lewis

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:

Abelson, Harold. Blown to bits : your life, liberty, and happiness after the digital explosion / Hal Abelson,

Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis. p. cm.

ISBN 0-13-713559-9 (hardback : alk. paper) 1. Computers and civilization. 2. Information technology--Technological innovations. 3. Digital media. I. Ledeen, Ken, 1946- II. Lewis, Harry R. III. Title.

QA76.9.C66A245 2008 303.48'33--dc22

2008005910

Copyright ? 2008 Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license visit or send a letter to Creative Commons 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

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CHAPTER 4

Needles in the Haystack

Google and Other Brokers in the Bits Bazaar

Found After Seventy Years

Rosalie Polotsky was 10 years old when she waved goodbye to her cousins, Sophia and Ossie, at the Moscow train station in 1937. The two sisters were fleeing the oppression of Soviet Russia to start a new life. Rosalie's family stayed behind. She grew up in Moscow, taught French, married Nariman Berkovich, and raised a family. In 1990, she emigrated to the U.S. and settled near her son, Sasha, in Massachusetts.

Rosalie, Nariman, and Sasha always wondered about the fate of Sophia and Ossie. The Iron Curtain had utterly severed communication among Jewish relatives. By the time Rosalie left for the U.S., her ties to Sophia and Ossie had been broken for so long that she had little hope of reconnecting with them-- and, as the years wore on, less reason for optimism that her cousins were still alive. Although his grandfather dreamed of finding them, Sasha's search of immigrant records at Ellis Island and the International Red Cross provided no clues. Perhaps, traveling across wartime Europe, the little girls had never even made it to the U.S.

Then one day, Sasha's cousin typed "Polotsky" into Google's search window and found a clue. An entry on a genealogical web site mentioned "Minacker," the name of Sophia's and Ossie's father. In short order, Rosalie, Sophia, and Ossie were reunited in Florida, after 70 years apart. "All the time when he was alive, he asked me to do something to find them," said Sasha, recalling his grandfather's wish. "It's something magic."

The digital explosion has produced vast quantities of informative data, the Internet has scattered that data across the globe, and the World Wide Web has

109

110 BLOWN TO BITS

put it within reach of millions of ordinary people. But you can't reach for something if you don't know where it is. Most of that vast store of digital information might as well not exist without a way to find it. For most of us, the way to find things on the Web is with web search engines. Search is a wondrous, transformative technology, which both fulfills dreams and shapes human knowledge. The search tools that help us find needles in the digital haystack have become the lenses through which we view the digital landscape. Businesses and governments use them to distort our picture of reality.

The Library and the Bazaar

In the beginning, the Web was a library. Information providers--mostly

businesses and universities, which could afford to create web pages--posted

information for others to see. Information consumers--mostly others in busi-

ness and academia--found out where to get the information and downloaded

it. They might know where to look because someone sent them the URL (the

"Uniform Resource Locator"), such as mit.edu (the URL for MIT). Ordinary peo-

ple didn't use the Web. Instead, they

WEB 1.0 VS. WEB 2.0

used services such as CompuServe for

In contemporary jargon, the newer, organized access to databases of var-

more participatory web sites to which users can contribute are

ious kinds of information. As the Web went commercial,

dubbed "Web 2.0." The older, more passive web sites are now called

directories began to appear, including printed "Yellow Pages." These

"Web 1.0." These look like software release numbers, but "Web 2.0"

directories listed places to go on the Web for various products and ser-

describes something subtler and more complex. Web 2.0 sites--

vices. If you wanted to buy a car, you looked in one place, and you looked

Facebook and Wikipedia, for example--exploit what economists

in another place to find a job. These lists resembled the categories AOL

call "network effects." Because users are contributing information

and CompuServe provided in the days before consumers could connect

as well as utilizing information others supply, these sites become

directly to the Internet. Human beings constructed these lists--

more valuable the more people are using them. See . lpt/a/6228 for a fuller explanation of Web 2.0.

editors decided what went in each category, and what got left out entirely.

The Web has changed drastically

since the mid-1990s. First, it is no

CHAPTER 4 NEEDLES IN THE HAYSTACK 111

longer a passive information resource. Blogs, Wikipedia, and Facebook are contributory structures, where peer involvement makes the information useful. Web sites are cheap and easy to create; ordinary individuals and even the smallest of organizations can now have them. As a result, the content and connectedness of the Web are changing all the time.

Second, the Web has gotten so big and so unstructured that it is not humanly possible to split it up into neat categories. Web pages simply don't lend themselves to organization in a nice structure, like an outline. There is no master plan for the Web--vast numbers of new pages are added daily in an utterly unstructured way. You certainly can't tell what a web page contains by looking at its URL.

Moreover, hierarchical organization is useless in helping you find information if you can't tell where in the hierarchy it might belong. You don't usually go to the Web to look for a web page. You go to look for information, and are glad to get it wherever you can find it. Often, you can't even guess where to look for what you want to know, and a nice, structured organization of knowledge would do you no good. For example, any sensible organization of human knowledge, such as an encyclopedia, would have a section on cows and a section on the moon. But if you didn't know that there was a nursery rhyme about the cow jumping over the moon, neither the "cow" nor the "moon" entry would help you figure out what the cow supposedly did to the moon. If you typed both words into a search engine, however, you would find out in the blink of an eye.

Search is the new paradigm for finding information--and not just on the Web as a whole. If you go to Wal-Mart's web site, you can trace through its hierarchical organization. At the top level, you get to choose between "accessories," "baby," "boys," "girls," and so on. If you click "baby," your next click takes you to "infant boys," "toddler girls," and so on. There is also a search window at the top. Type whatever you want, and you may be taken directly to what you are looking for--but only on Wal-Mart's site. Such limited search engines help us share photos, read newspapers, buy books online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and even find old email on our own laptops.

Search makes it possible to find things in vast digital repositories. But search is more Search is a new form of than a quick form of look-up in a digital control over information. library. Search is a new form of control over information.

Information retrieval tools such as Google are extraordinarily democratizing--Rosalie and Sasha Berkovich did not need to hire a professional peoplefinder. But the power that has been vested in individuals is not the only kind

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