Google - Extension of the Brain
I was just reading a Slashdot post on the top 25 innovations of the past twenty-five years. CNET has been counting down each invention for some time now and plans on announcing the #1 invention on Sunday. I think their obvious pick will be the World Wide Web. One poster mentioned the Search Engine as the top prize, which got me thinking.
When I was younger, my parents were very education-minded and we had probably six or seven separate sets of encyclopaedia in the home, including the legendary Encyclopaedia Brittannica, where entries are written by the experts of the field (Einstein, for instance, wrote a few entries in his area). My younger brother and I regularly read each volume of the encyclopedia cover-to-cover--not the Britannica, of course, as that was too big. We both became known as walking encyclopedias.
Here was this expanse of human knowledge compressed into a few books and available at my fingertips. When I didn't know about any topic, I looked it up. (Interestingly, Bill Gates wrote in his book The Road Ahead, that he also read encyclopedias cover-to-cover until he reached the volume "P.") There was a nice feedback loop too. People wondered how I knew so much information about the world, which further encourage myself to read more.
In high-school, I also became a library troll (er, aide). In college, I live in the libraries at Harvard (mainly, in the Science Center, but also in Widener Library and Hilles) and MIT (which were opened to the public) when I wasn't in the Aiken computer lab. After working at Microsoft, I spent many a weekend in Microsoft's small technical library (which used to be in building 13, now 100) in addition to the local library in Bellevue. It helps too that before 1996, the library was the only way to access the Internet from Microsoft, because of some fear that outsiders could gain access to Microsoft's internal corporate network and steal source code for Office or Windows.
I did discover the Internet in 1988 with Usenet, Telnet, and FTP, and have used it regularly and frequently ever since. Usenet newsgroups were amazing source of information covering an infinite range of subject and in many ways replaced the encyclopedia with more current and practical information, though it has fallen in relevance due to the Web and the influx of less technical savvy mainstream users.
The emergence of Google and predecessors got me out of the library. I since developed the habit of looking up any word or phrase that I have little familiarity with. My use of Google isn't necessarily need-based. I discomforts me whenever I hear a word or concept that I don't know--causing me to feel ignorant. My ex-wife was shocked when I went to a search engine to find out "how to set up a party."
Google is my new encyclopedia--the whole expanse of human knowledge at my fingertips. It's my guru with all the answers. Or, another way I like to think of it, as an extension of my brain, where if I can't call up an answer from my head immediately, I know that I am always only a few minutes away from it.