Google’s Memory Upgrade

How Blogger could do more than improve Google’s Web searches.

Why did Google buy Blogger?  Ever since the news leaked a few weeks ago, the Web has been awash with speculation. So far, most theorizing has focused on the ways that Blogger could enhance Google’s ability to search for Web pages. But the Blogger acquisition could open up an entirely new service for Google. Instead of just helping you find new things, Google could help you keep track of what you’ve already found. Right now Google is a kind of information detective, and a brilliant one at that. But it could be something more: an extension of your memory.

Up to now, Google’s services have revolved entirely around organizing and packaging the Web so that you can better find information—whether in the form of its flagship search tool, or the Google News service, or its online shopping experiment, Froogle. But Google has not yet ventured into managing the information and surfing history of individual users.

If Google went in this direction with the Blogger acquisition, it would hearken back to one of the seminal documents of the computing age: Vannevar Bush’s 1946 “As We May Think” essay, which envisioned a new tool to augment human memory. Bush’s imaginary device, called the Memex, would help manage the ever-accelerating explosion of information in the world. Bush imagined the Memex as a machine of connected documents that from one angle looks a great deal like the modern, Web-enabled computer. But in one crucial respect, Bush’s vision differed from today’s Web: He placed great importance on the trails created as the user moved through information space, assuming that a record of those trails would be of great use in amplifying the signal of human memory. In many ways, our networked computers have wildly exceeded Bush’s vision, but our trail-recording tools are still woefully undernourished.

I’ve now spent the past eight years exploring the Web practically every day, and over that time I’ve probably stumbled across thousands of documents that were worth preserving, yet the tools I have for organizing that history are minimal at best. Bookmarks are helpful if you’re tracking a dozen sites, but beyond useless if you’re managing 10,000. If Google can organize the entire Web with such efficacy, imagine what it could do with a much smaller subset of documents. It could make each individual’s long, meandering surfing history into something genuinely useful. Right now, the best tools for recording our surfing patterns are the family of Weblog tools on the market, Blogger being the most widely-recognized brand. Google is a tool for discovering new places to visit on the Web, and Blogger is a tool for recording those visits.

Blogger isn’t nearly as adept at recording visits as Google is at searching for Web sites, but with the potential exception of other Weblog tools such Radio or Movable Type, it’s the best game in town. And by acquiring Blogger, Google gets access to the user base, thousands of individuals who are already sold on the premise of storing their Web actions for posterity.

How might Google’s tools improve the existing Blogger technology? One feature might work like this: Each time I search for something on Google, a list of URLs is generated. When I click on one of those URLs, the page I’ve selected is automatically blogged for me: storing for posterity the text and location of the document. If I were an exhibitionist sort, I could choose to publish this list to the world, but more likely I’d keep it as a private archive, visible only to me. It would be a kind of outsourced memory, but one capable of making new connections on its own. Google could easily generate a list of all the pages that linked to the pages in my archive, or notify me if a page I discovered two years ago suddenly grew popular. I’d have the option of searching just my personal archive, instead of the entire Web—or searching the archive’s extended family: both the pages I’ve surfed through, and the Web sites that link to those pages.

This idea of personalized link collections, augmented by software, is straight from the pages of “As We May Think”: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear,” Bush predicted, “ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. … There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” Google is the encyclopedia of the connected age, and bloggers are the trailblazers. If Google simply uses Blogger to update its database more rapidly, it won’t change the Web experience as we know it in any profound way. But a genuine trailblazing device would be a way of preserving—and widening—the paths that our lives have carved through information space.

Webhead thanks Enuma Onyeukwu for suggesting some of the details in the Google tracking application.