November 28, 2005
The New Procrastination
So I’m going to this conference on Saturday. Looks to be a room full of super-smart academics, lawyers, and technologists. And me.
We’re all to write a short position paper ahead of time, so as to facilitate a running start on the conversation; it’s only a day-long event. The papers were due today, and I got mine in, but without leeway to do what I really wanted to: post it here ahead of time.
That’s the new procrastination: not waiting until the last minute (although I did that too), but specifically waiting until it is no longer reasonable to call on your blog readership for comments and critiques.
Anyway, at the conference, I’m on Panel 1, which aims to
review the wide range of what search engines do and their importance in the information ecosystem.
industry participants, computer scientists, and analysts will flag major trends in search engine technology and try to predict future developments, with the goal of pointing out those trends that will create new conflicts and new litigation.
I actually had a tough time with this; I didn’t want to just make a bunch of random, breezy predictions about video search or super-cool maps or whatever. So I spent the day on Saturday trying to come up with something that really got me excited.
Position paper after the break. It’s already turned in, but of course I’ll have to talk about it (and other things) on Saturday, so comment! Comment!
Robin Sloan, Panel 1: The Search Space
Iím one of the two producers of EPIC, an eight-minute Flash movie about the future of media. The movie imagines a future super-Google that stores, integrates, and organizes all of your stuff: email, photos, blog posts, movies, music, purchases, subscriptions, social networks, and more.
And thatís pretty much what you hear when people talk about the future of search: Itís about organizing information that matters to you and making your life work better.
Which is, of course, excellent.
But no one ever seems to talk about making our shared public life work better. There is an entire class of information that matters to all of us — itís a fuzzy distinction, but Iíd say itís information that we use to pick political leaders and make community decisions — and it is, right now, generally inscrutable.
So what if Google (which Iíll take as the token for any large, search-focused internet media company) actually took a crack at organizing our democracy?
It might include:
- Google Vote — introduced in 2008, naturally. Itís as much an improvement over a traditional newspaper voting guide as Google Maps is over a gas-station atlas. Itís clear, dynamic, and comes with an API that gives developers access to a database of candidates and ballot items everywhere.
- Google Census. Some enterprising mash-up artists have begun overlaying Census data on Google Maps already, but itís just a start, and if youíve ever explored the Census, you know thereís a lot there to work with there. Displaying all that data in one holistic view — a citizenís dashboard — is a Google-scale problem.
- Google FOIA. The process gets streamlined, automated, and underwritten; with Googleís help, making a FOIA request is as easy as sending an email. The results get scanned and indexed for all to see. Googleís philosophy: Anything that can be FOIAíd should be FOIAíd.
- Google Redistricting. Come on. You know they want to do it.
Once Google gets into this particular game, though, familiar questions gather new life.
- When I type my ZIP code into Google Vote and get a map of my district and a list of candidates in return, is it okay if I also see AdWords from PACs listed down the side of the page? Even AdWords from the candidates themselves? Is that logically equivalent to campaign ads on the eleven-oí-clock news — or is it something very different?
- When search results can determine elections, not just electronics purchases, how should we think about rankings and fairness? Will the party with the best search-engine optimization always win? What happens when algorithm changes have political ramifications?
Sure, a next-generation search platform that stores all your stuff — a true Google Grid — would be great to have. I donít doubt that itís coming.
But as lawyers, scholars, technologists, policymakers, and makers of eight-minute Flash movies, we should always be asking ourselves: To what end?
Our most pressing problems are not misplaced emails and hard-to-find reference books. They are much bigger than that, and it would be a shame, with all the wizardry at our disposal, to ignore them.
So I think our conversation about the future of search should include questions of what it ought to be — and how it might begin to affect the core, not just the periphery, of law and public life.