Author: gleick

Secret No More: Google and Power

Just last month, in an essay for the New York Review, I wrote the following sentence about Google and secrecy: None of these books can tell you how many search queries Google fields, how much electricity it consumes, how much storage capacity it owns, how many streets it has photographed, how much e-mail it stores; nor can you Google the answers, because Google values its privacy. As of today, that’s out of date. Google has decided to reveal the answer to two of those questions. James Glanz reports in the New York Times that the company’s data centers worldwide consume just under 260 million watts of electricity and field something over a billion searches a day. This works out (Google says) to about three-tenths of a watt-hour per search. Google had given out that per-search figure before, in hopes of quieting people who wildly estimated that a single search consumes as much energy as bringing half a kettle of water (however much that is) to boil, or running a 100-watt light bulb for an hour. …

Twitter Postscript: Earthquake!

Sitting at one’s desk in New York, one feels a tremor. Dreaming? Naturally one turns to cyberspace. The U.S. Geological Survey is reporting an earthquake just moments ago, but it’s in Virginia. That’s 300 miles from here—impossible. Or is it? The real-time seismograph from the Lamont-Doherty observatory is not responding. That in itself seems like a sign. Then there’s Twitter. Sure enough! Markos says it’s 5.8 in the DC area. Aaron Stewart-Ahn says he felt it in Brooklyn. Irfon-Kim Ahmad says he felt it in Toronto. Colson Whitehead is right in there: Several of my followers respond to a query within minutes, including Ismet Berkan, in Turkish: “sen o kadar bilim kitabi yaz, sonra da bunu sor.” Andy Borowitz reassures his followers that Justin Bieber is unharmed. And Maria Popova sums up: “Yep. We’ve just had an earthquake. And tweets about it travel faster than seismic waves.”  

Why Am I on Twitter?

I am not “on” Twitter—what a loathsome expression. Now and then I may be on time or on my way or on a roll or on the phone; I am fortunately not on crack or on the dole or on the rag or on the wagon. But I am not on Twitter (or Facebook or the internet). I do, however, use Twitter. Occasionally I dispatch tweets of my own, but mostly I just listen. I follow a small number of people. (Very small: less than .000001 percent of the people available to be followed. That’s an important fact about Twitter. No one can sample more than the minutest fraction; everyone is taking droplets of the ocean.) Last night, for a few excited minutes, I was reminded of why. Something important was happening far away, and I was able to check in, not on the reality, not on the facts, but on my tiny chosen slice of the global consciousness. Tweets are not facts; they are not news. They are not to be trusted: The real news will …

How Google Dominates Us (2011)

How thoroughly and how radically Google has already transformed the information economy has not been well understood. The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. Attention is what we, the users, give to Google, and our attention is what Google sells—concentrated, focused, and crystallized.

Touching History

I got a thrill in December 1999 in the Reading Room of the Morgan Library in New York when the librarian, Sylvie Merian, brought me, after I had completed an application with a letter of reference and a photo ID, the first, oldest notebook of Isaac Newton. First I was required to study a microfilm version. There followed a certain amount of pomp. The notebook was lifted from a blue cloth drop-spine box and laid on a special padded stand. I was struck by how impossibly tiny it was—58 leaves bound in vellum, just 2¾ inches wide, half the size I would have guessed from the enlarged microfilm images. There was his name, “Isacus Newton,” proudly inscribed by the 17-year-old with his quill, and the date, 1659. “He filled the pages with meticulous script, the letters and numerals often less than one-sixteenth of an inch high,” I wrote in Isaac Newton a few years later. “He began at both ends and worked toward the middle.” Apparently historians know the feeling well—the exhilaration that comes from handling …

Touching History: Addendum

In a little essay in The Times (which you can read here or there) I muse about the differences between the artifacts of history—the tangible, venerable manuscripts and notebooks and other touchstones—and their new digital counterparts. I try to push back against what I see as a little bit of sentimentalizing. But nothing I say—and nothing I’m pushing back against—is as eloquent as a comment almost thirty years ago, long before the digitization began, by the great historian and biographer Richard Holmes. So let me just quote it here. It’s from his classic book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer—in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals. Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality—Thomas Hardy’s simple steel-tipped pens, each carved with a novel’s name; Shelley’s guitar, presented to Jane Williams; Balzac’s blue china coffee-pot … It is as if the act of repeated touching, especially in the process of daily work …