Google is twenty years old: how it has changed our lives

September 27, 1998 – The most used internet search engine in the world, created in a garage, records the first record of indexed pages. Today it has 88 thousand employees and a turnover of 111 billion dollars. Because, by providing our data, every question on the Web generates a mine of money for those who provide the answer

Google, the most used search engine in the world, is twenty years old. To blow out the candles on the cake you can choose the day and, if desired, also the year. Legally the company was born on 4 September 1998, but its domain had already been registered on 15 September 1997. By convention, since 2005 the birthday has been celebrated on 27 September in memory of when, in 1998, a first page record was registered indexed. The atrocious neologism “guglare” was not yet on the horizon. In any case, as Silicon Valley mythology dictates, the cradle was a garage.

Twenty years in the Internet age, where everything is (was) volatile and ephemeral, is an eternity. Who remembers more systems for exchanging emails like Eudora? Search engines and browsers were born and died in a few months. And the Yahoo! query portal Doesn’t that seem like prehistory to you, even though he’s still very much alive and well? How many operating systems have followed since DOS 3.0? What happened to foldable floppies , hard disks, CD-ROMs? Archeology still without a museum, but many of us have a museum at home.

Searchable in 128 languages, a multinational with the financial power of a state, a constellation of different companies and services, Google seems eternally young. Perhaps also because its logo, usually the most sacred and untouchable thing for a successful company, is constantly updated. In twenty years, seven have already occurred, a perennial but always minimalist facelift : characters with a classic design, the penultimate one was a modernized Bodoni, since 1 September 2015 the multinational from Mountain View has renounced its ‘graces’ and chosen a “stick” with a rigid and essential geometry. But geometry is violated on a daily basis by doodles that link current events, also attentive to the situations of the various user countries. To truly dominate, the global must masquerade as the local. The six letters of Google evoke an anomalous rainbow (blue, red, yellow, light blue, green and red again), but the incongruent colors of the logo always stand out on a large white page. Reassuring and disturbing at the same time.

Google imitates the pronunciation of googol. It was a 9-year-old boy, Milton Sirotta, who invented this word in 1938 to indicate the number 10 raised to the hundredth power. Milton was walking with his uncle Edward Kasner, a mathematics professor at Columbia University, and was playing with imagining very large numbers that could be written with just a few very small digits. Ten to the power of 100 is written with a pair of ones and three zeros. It seems like a little thing. But all the stars in all the galaxies are only 10 to the 22nd and all the atoms that make up the universe are just 10 to the 80th. Inside Google is the entire universe and there is plenty of room left for many other universes.

Hence we understand the ambition of Larry Page and Sergey Brin when in 1995 in Stanford, California, in their early twenties, they named their search engine. With a name like that it is natural that Google aimed to catalog all the information on the web, which is hundreds and hundreds of billions of pages, but even if it were one hundred thousand billion it would still be a trifle compared to the universe.

Google itself is a universe, or at least a constellation of other ultra-powerful brands: Gmail, You Tube, Google Maps, the Android operating system. Not to mention social media and an infinite number of apps . An empire that extends across more than 50 countries, with 88 thousand employees, a turnover of 111 billion dollars and a profit of 12 (2017 data).

Compared to previous search engines, Google was immediately more intelligent. Because intelligence is knowing how to choose. And Google, as a first approximation, selects sites based on their links and accesses: the more they have, the more sites there should be that contain what you are looking for. A criterion that recalls the impact factor : a scientific article is all the more important the more citations it receives from other researchers. But Google’s algorithm is continually (secretly) evolving. And you notice it. After you’ve been using it for a while, Google seems to know you so well that it puts the information you need first, and to show you how confident it is it even has the “I’m feeling lucky” button: just one click, and you’re served. . Yes, because while it provides you with the requested information, it steals other information from you.

Few things identify us like the questions we ask them: it is easy to deduce our interests, the work we do, our cultural level, what curiosities guide us, what opinions we have, what products attract us. Hence the well-targeted purchasing advice that accompanies our research. And a doubt: is this information used only for this already questionable purpose or can it be resold to anyone who is interested in purchasing it? On the other hand, if the buyer was the US Department of Defense and the objective pursued was the fight against terrorism, how could you say no? The Italian law of 31 December 1996 n.675 on the protection of personal data (or privacy ), with all the paperwork it forces us to sign, appears provincial and pathetic, not only inconvenient and ineffective.

In April 2007 Google patented a system for drawing the psychological profile of those who enjoy online video games . With the leaps and bounds of artificial intelligence, the day is imminent when this search engine will know our tastes better than we do ourselves. This way we will also be able to ask Google which studios to choose, which film to see, which investment to make, whether to divorce or change girlfriend. It’s not science fiction. Already now, when you download a film with Raffaella Carrà from YouTube, for example, the site immediately offers you others, and then goes on to suggest films with Lorella Cuccarini or Heather Parisi. They understood that you are nostalgic for 70s TV. In the same way, Amazon, after providing you with some books you requested, suggests other readings tailored to your tastes. Sites like Second Life and World of Warcraft even know your most secret fantasies, they descend into the depths of your unconscious.

How pervasive and invasive user profiling is is well demonstrated by this curious fact: American banks grant mortgages and loans more easily to those who purchase felt pads to put under furniture and chair legs: people like this are probably diligent, reliable, punctual. But who tells the banks that Tizio buys felt pads and Caio doesn’t? Simple: to find felt pads you usually do a search on Google and then buy them via Amazon…

Given that Google, Amazon, YouTube and the like mostly provide useful services, is there any way to protect yourself from abuse? There is only one: knowing how this software works , making it more transparent, providing us with meta-knowledge that helps us interpret the knowledge drawn from the web with algorithms that are as clever as they are mysterious.

If you buy something in that immense virtual market that is e-bay, the quality control is done by all the buyers, who can report scams or deceptions: e-bay offers the marketplace, sales and purchases take place under a regime in the hands of the users . If you consult Wikipedia, knowledge circulates among peers: there are a multitude of Wikipedians, often the user of knowledge is also the producer of it, some make mistakes but others correct: it seems that an error in Wikipedia has an average life of 5 minutes, serious studies say that Wiki’s reliability is comparable to that of the legendary Encyclopedia Britannica.

Google’s mechanism is completely different. Knowledge does not circulate among peers but falls from the top of the algorithms that file it, memorize it and sift it for you. Wikipedia is democratic, almost assembly-like. Google is technocratic. Even if its development has taken advantage of open source and if the criterion with which it establishes the ranking of sites has something of the rudimentary democracy of Auditel (it is assumed that those with more links are more reliable, just as it is assumed that the program TV with more listeners is better, which remains to be demonstrated…).

There is no knowledge on the Internet if you do not possess meta-knowledge: that of the systems with which search engines work. It is the new form of that old thing called “critical sense”. The positive fact remains that, unlike money, knowledge multiplies by sharing it, and this is precisely what happens thanks to the Internet. If I share the Pythagorean theorem with a billion people, everyone is richer in the end. If I divide the money from a bank among a billion people, in the end they are all as poor as before.

Final remarks. On the Internet almost everything seems free, starting with Google, but this is not the case. We pay by providing our data, which for some becomes a mine of money. The internet was born and grew as a ‘common good’, comparable to the air we breathe, but then someone made billions using this common good and today there are those who, using Facebook, Twitter and the like, decide the fate of the world. And let’s not forget that in any case Google only scans the surface of the web: less than 10 percent, even if it presents us with millions of results found in a fraction of a second. Under the oceanic foam of the web lies the deep web, and beneath that the dark web. To navigate those dark depths you need special search engines that are actually meta-engines, that is, engines of engines, and are usually paid.

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