“The control of information is something the elite always do, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people,” explained American writer Tom Clancy.
If information were power, then Google would be the most powerful institution on the planet. No other organisation had changed the way we think, the way we behave, the way we look at authority the way Google has. Not just through its ever-present search engine, but Google is building a series of products that run our lives – like Gmail, Google Maps, Android, Chrome – and now the company is developing products like driverless cars and surgical robots that promise to transform our lives. Information shapes our behaviour, it defines how we should live, and it decreases our uncertainty about our environments to make informed decisions.
No wonder the dictator Al-Sisi shuts down opposition media, criminalising any dissidents in Egypt, leaving only the government narrative and Al-Sisi’s fatwas allowed. “The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV,” said Nicolas Carr in his article in The Atlantic.
Our economy moved from manufacturing and service, to an information economy; the information age in every sense, from becoming one nation under God to one nation under Google. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company in 1998, Google was a product that anticipated needs and ranked a list of websites by how relevant they were to a query. Google spouts out massive amounts of information that is literally mind boggling. Even the name Google, a misspelling of “googol” – the number one followed by 100 zeros – is now spitting massive amounts of information in seconds. When Google started in 1998, the giant search engine used to get 9,800 searches per day, but now it is swollen to almost 6bn every day, almost one for every human on this earth.
Throughout history, people who are in power understand this very well – holding onto power hinges on holding onto information and knowledge. The Wiseman, the Medicine man, the Imam, the Ayatollah, the priest, the temple, the church, the mosque and other religious institutions kept themselves viable and relevant by controlling the flow of information from God to the believers and the faithful.
People rely on information to survive and to manage their lives. The Ancient Egyptians built their civilisation based on their superior knowledge of astronomy and chemistry, the Greeks through their philosophers, and the Romans through knowledge of warfare and skill. Ordinary people had to rely on learned persons or institutions to live their lives.
We had to ask a priest, a rabbi, or an imam to answer life’s persistent questions, to define our relationship with God and nature. Those learned people had to earn their living and gain their authority through the control of information. They had to have the answers or pretend to know the answers; otherwise they would fade away. People rely on them, come to them when in need, asking questions, seeking answers, and travelling miles to get to the right source of information.
Now our answer is a click away, all you have to do is Google it: the misspelled name has become a verb, just Google it. Whatever it is, just Google it, and a whole collection of human knowledge will be flashing before your eyes in seconds. So when Brett T. Robinson, in his book “Appletopia”, said: “Touching is believing”, it is about the iPhone. The phrase “Touching is believing” evokes the biblical account of the apostle Thomas, who refused to believe Christ had risen from the dead until he could touch the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion, and now for the first time in human history, our collective human knowledge is available at our disposal with a touch of a finger. I understand that Google is not just a passive channel of information.
The way the giant search engine doesn’t just search, but it presents information in such a way that shapes the process of thoughts. My mind now expects to take in information the way Google distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. However, as Nicolas articulated in The Atlantic, there is a drawback: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. Still going with Google ambitious mission, which it is “to organise” the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine”, which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want”. In Google’s view, the more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their meaning, the more productive we become as thinkers. We can find the answer for our quest for truth, no need for learned people or institutions.
Here is Brett T. Robinson again: “The dawn of the industrial revolution shifted the centre of collective wonder to the creative machines that made up the late-19th-century landscape. Enormous factories, powerful machines, immense buildings and bridges humbled man in new and startling ways. An army of human creators fashioning a new Tower of Babel, a new nature, was outshining the Creator.” And Google is the new tower of Babel that technological believers built, by a humanity that has invented interactive communications. And thanks to the most advanced modern communication technologies, it has now made the Earth, our great common home, a global village?
Blogger Brian Lam coined the term “Jesus phone” for the effect of the impact that iPhone made on our lives, where “touching is believing”. The iPhone’s central role in the production/reproduction and circulation/recirculation of symbols grants it an elevated status worthy of descriptors like “Jesus phone”.
Then Google, with its ability to bring our collective human knowledge at the tip of our fingers, guiding us through life, telling us what to do, what to eat, where to go and what to believe: Google by far is my new Ayatollah, who would hopefully provide me with the right fatwa to join the right jihad!
Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American TV show Belahdan. His articles are published in national and international publications. He blogs at Notes From America, on www.ahmediatv.com. Follow him on Twitter @AhmediaTV