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December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006

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Photograph by Dom Hart / NASA
(Left to right) In a signing ceremony on Sept. 28, 2005, NASA wonk Scott Pace and NASA Ames boss Scott Hubbard discussed their plans for 'bio-info-nano convergence' (we swear we didn't make that up!) and transferred title to the universe to Google CEO Eric Schmidt (OK, maybe that part we did).

We Are the Champions of the World

But Earth's a small planet, so just in case, we bought NASA

Report From Silicon Valley

By Dan Pulcrano

SURE, San Jose city government, Hewlett-Packard, Calpine and Knight Ridder imploded, but things are cruising along fine here in Silicon Valley. While a mayoral censure/surprise city manager resignation in the nation's 10th most populous city, CEO-ousting at the largest company, bankruptcy of the biggest power company or fire sale of the monopoly daily newspaper might be big deals elsewhere, they are barely Richter blips around here because we have bigger veggie-burgers to fry.

Bastions of traditional power like mainstream media, computer manufacturing, electricity production or even government itself are soooo old-school these days. The notion of bringing free elections to Iraq seems at best quaint and at worst needless carnage when the regulation and distribution of everything that matters to enlightened humans—knowledge, free expression, personal privacy, living standards, health care, DVDs—is no longer controlled by elected individuals. When the governments of India and China start crying that their national security is being compromised by links and pictures on a search engine, it's time to throw the flag up and face the reality that the information revolution has won. At the top of the heap, of course, is Google, a 7-year-old enterprise that in 2005 whizzed past American icons like Boeing, McDonald's, Coca-Cola and 3M to become the 17th most valuable U.S. company.

Through divine providence or just dumb luck, the dotcom implosion that humbled titans like Sun and Cisco enabled the valley's reinvention as the epicenter of the new information economy, home to the Internet's holy trinity of Yahoo, eBay and Google. Yes, Silicon Valley, land of the two-bedroom, million-dollar fixer-upper, has survived the exaggerated reports of its demise to rule the world yet again.

The world, just a damp, moss-covered dirtball in a big universe, might not be enough of a conquest for Google's ambitions, however, so just in case, the company announced plans in September to become roommates with NASA at Moffett. The memorandum of understanding suggests that the agreement to collaborate is not your typical Silicon Valley commercial real estate lease and allows Google to crunch space data to create successor products to Google Earth like "Google Mars" and "Google Moon." NASA's press release contained a sentence suggesting something of a brain merger between the space agency and the company that controls the world's largest computer system as well as the world's most advanced artificial intelligence application. Here's what they envision: "large-scale data management, massively distributed computing, bio-info-nano convergence, and encouragement of the entrepreneurial space industry." I'm not sure if bio-nano refers to miniaturized genetically engineered tropical fruit or a brain-implanted iPod, but the last clause suggests space flight tickets at Moffett might not be far off. Beam me up, Sergey.

With military airfields, expansive dirigible hangars and a million feet of national security-grade office space for the Googlers, the old Air Force base will give the New Information Order a bunker that will outdo Howard Hughes or any James Bond bad guy, even Dr. Evil's headquarters in the Space Needle. Plus, they won't "be evil."

Not paying attention to this mantra was India's president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who publicly suggested that Google Earth was abetting terrorists by serving up satellite photos of his country's sensitive government facilities.

"Google welcomes dialogue with governments," company spokeswoman Debbie Frost responded with the kind of diplomatic posturing usually displayed by ambassadors of nations. Kalam should take her up on the offer to negotiate. After China got its knickers twisted up over easy access to counterrevolutionary news sources, six anti-government publications vanished from Google News' index.

Having established peer relationships with the world's major governments and space agencies, the Google contingent shouldn't fear Big Media much. Already shell-shocked from the damage wrought by a soft-spoken San Francisco nerd named Craig, America's daily newspapers won't have much fight left in them when the public starts posting its garage sale notices and help wanted ads to Google Base.

Executives at the search-firm-turned-media-titan have assured attendees at industry conferences that the knowledge database is really intended for such things as archiving pumpkin pie recipes or information about animal species as part of a noble quest to expand free access to knowledge. To which some knowledgeable insiders chuckled that Google had been calling around media circles to encourage publications to post their entertainment events and classified advertising data—traditional newspaper revenue categories—while they probably hadn't placed a call to the American Zoological Society.

This, of course, worries executives at publications like the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, for whom 2005 was possibly their worst year ever, when wholesale losses of circulation and revenue forced them to raise prices and slash their news gathering capabilities. Has Google considered that it will have less content to index, rank and sell advertising around when all the professional journalists are standing on median strips with cardboard signs? In their place, there'll be a tsunami of bloggers, starry-eyed citizen journalists and algorithm manipulators who won't be able to tell whether the mayor's lying or not about his trash contract.

It will be a world without Murrows or Cronkites, Seymour Hershes or Jack Andersons. Not to mention reference librarians. Google has been busy scanning collections of entire libraries, including the university libraries at Stanford, Michigan, Harvard and Oxford, plus the New York Public Library. Some authors and publishers have expressed concern about the scanning juggernaut, but Google learned long ago that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Oh, you didn't want your copyrighted material cached on our site? OK, we'll remove it, no problem. Maybe someone will find out about you in The New York Times Book Review ...

The aggregation of more information than the great libraries of the world—the Vatican, Alexandria, the Library of Congress—married to the kind of data collection and processing power formerly deployed only by the KGB, CIA and NSA gives the Mountain View company a rather strong hand in an "information is power" world. Google has so much data archived now that it has stopped displaying the number of pages it has indexed on its home page like an old McDonald's hamburger sign. Or maybe the hundred thousand-plus daisy-chained servers have taken on a life of their own, and the humans have lost count.

This formidable transformation in the nature of information collection, organization and distribution will have unknown consequences, some of them positive. Institutional transparency and instant access to information will educate billions, save lives and accelerate social evolution and scientific innovation to a previously unexperienced velocity. What will not be generally available is the knowledge that those inside the firewall are amassing. That will not be shared by a company that has developed a culture of secrecy. It is the knowledge that evolves from observing patterns in aggregated human activity on a never before experienced scale. Google can watch trends or monitor industry niches and enter them at will if a sector appears lucrative enough. It can link products without worrying about Microsoft-style antitrust risks because its services are free. No one is forcing you to type your search query or place your mail on Google's hard drives, are they? Blogged Jason Kottke, "Google knows what people write about, what they search for, what they shop for, they know who wants to advertise and how effective those advertisements are, and they're about to know how we communicate with friends and loved ones."

I suspect that's only a small part of what the world's most formidable information company has learned so far as it merrily proceeds to index video clips, explore the text-messaging frontier, add voice services and become the advertising agency of record to the world's publishers, online and offline. Having raised another $4 billion in a secondary offering this year, the company has a lot up its sleeve: putting up free wireless networks, buying up fiber infrastructure, hiring Internet inventor Vint Cerf and possibly looking to buy a browser. When that happens, how long will it be before the Google browser dispenses with URLs? There will be no address bar, and navigation will go through Google rather than addresses resolved at the root servers that Cerf and his colleagues created.

Here in Silicon Valley, thanks to Google's success, both salaries and housing prices are rising like GOOG shares.

For valley residents, at least, there's some small comfort in knowing that when Google gets around to destroying your employer, there's a company next to the space portal that's always hiring.

And it has a good chef.

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