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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo JANUARY 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 5
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The Engine That Soared
By Robin Tatu

The ability to search the Internet revolutionized everything. Who do you think was behind that?

The Search:
How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

By John Battelle
Penguin Group, 280 pp.

The Internet wars are heating up. Google and Yahoo! make the headlines daily as they compete to offer expanded services, capture media markets and negotiate business with China. Then there’s Google’s project to digitize millions of books, prompting heated debates over copyright laws. In October, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates exhorted his executives to move quickly and decisively to harness the potential of this new “Internet services model.” Clearly, the Net as we know it is changing. Thus John Battelle’s book, “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture,” provides a timely study of the world of online commerce and politics.

Cofounder of Wired magazine and a frequent commentator on the IT scene, Battelle emphasizes that his subject is not any one company, though much of the book centers on Google. Instead, Battelle is intrigued by the very act of searching online. It was search that organized and rationalized the Internet, Battelle says, enabling its commercialization. And it is search that is today catalyzing the Internet’s move out of computers and into any number of other devices—at present, cell phones and PDAs; in the future, automobiles, televisions and stereos.

Also significant for Batelle is search’s “clickstream,” the record that millions of users leave as they move through the Internet each day. Until a few years ago, clickstream was uncollected and uncategorized, as ephemeral as a telephone call. Yet tracking these clicks is the business of search engine companies: Results of a search query are ranked by popularity—Web sites that top the list are ones that have previously attracted the most hits. Indeed, it is through the tabulation of clicks that search companies charge their advertisers. Clickstream also allows Google to produce Zeitgeist, a list of the top queries by week, month and year, and Amazon to greet patrons with book recommendations. But is Big Brother listening in on our individual clicks? It is entirely possible, Battelle says, and an issue of real concern. Yet this does not diminish his fascination with clickstream’s cultural implications. We are amassing an enormous “database of intentions,” he declares, a record of our collective interests, hopes and concerns. So what does it say about contemporary culture that the top 2004 search term was “Britney Spears”? Or that in 2001, it was not “world trade center” (no. 3) but “nostradamus”?

At a time when “google” has entered the lexicon as an activity many of us engage in daily, it is difficult to recall just a decade earlier when Net surfing often meant clicking randomly from site to site. “The Search” reconstructs this period and the attempts of computer engineers working with Archie, Lycos and Altavista to tame the World Wide Web. The story of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin has become familiar lore, but in Battelle’s hands it is compelling reading, as he details their efforts to design a page-rank algorithm, attract backers for their fledgling company and then keep up with its meteoric rise and, in 2004, manage Google’s IPO.

Battelle suggests that in the future, search will become even more intuitive and personalized, pointing as an example to GlobalSpec’s Engineering Web, which by focusing upon a single domain can already produce stronger, more specific results than Google. He believes there is more innovation to come: “As every engineer in the search field loves to tell you, search is at best 5 percent solved—we’re not even into the double digits of its potential.”

“The Search” will engage anyone interested in Internet technology as well as those fascinated by the commercial potential and business challenges of the Net. It’s also for readers who will find themselves unable to resist setting the book aside momentarily to check out that next new Google feature. Increasingly, Battelle says, search is becoming a mechanism for “how we understand ourselves, our world and our place within it. It’s how we navigate the one infinite resource that drives human culture: knowledge.”

Robin Tatu is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

FEATURES
A NEW ERA - By Corinna Wu
A POWERFUL FORCE - By Alice Daniel
A MIND FOR DESIGN - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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BRIEFINGS
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REFRACTIONS: Celebrating Bicentennials - By Henry Petroski
TEACHING TOOLBOX
A BROADER PERSPECTIVE - Some engineering students manage to squeeze study abroad into their tight schedules. - By Margaret Loftus
TEACHING: A Push for Participation - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
BOOK REVIEW: The Engine That Soared - By Robin Tatu
ON CAMPUS: Fuel for Thought - By Lynne Shallcross
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: In Search of a Sputnik Moment - By Daniel Mark Fogel
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