We had the Roaring '20s and the Swinging '60s. Then came the Me Decade and the Greed Decade. The 10-year period that's about to end, say historians and social critics, was "a big-bang decade," "a historical pivot," "one huge tectonic shift."
But what to call it?
Here's a thought: The company of the decade is Google. The word of the decade is what that company lets us do. Search. The decade felt like a big white screen with those clean Google graphics and that blank box with the blinking cursor.
This was the Search Decade.
Sept. 11, 2001: Why do they hate us? Where is bin Laden?
Hurricane Katrina in 2005: Where is the aid? Who is in charge?
The economic panic and collapse in 2008: How did this happen? Who do we blame? What do we do?
And finally the election as president of a person who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas: What's an American? Who are we? Where do we come from, and where are we going?
"It feels almost like Exodus," said Robin Sloan, co-creator of EPIC 2014, a prescient short film about the future of news, and us, that first screened in St. Petersburg in 2004.
"We're wandering now."
"It's ironic, but the bigger the Internet gets the more difficult it is to find a simple, accurate answer to your questions," Google co-founder Larry Page said at the beginning of this decade. "The more information there is out there, the more likely you are to get junk or lies for an answer."
He ended up being more right than even he, the Stanford prodigy, thought he would be.
The name Google comes from googol, the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes, which conjures infinity. We can find today more information more quickly than ever before. The same will be true tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. The power of this capability is limited only by how we use it.
It's the paradox of search.
Said Page: "You are fighting with chaos."
The magazine The Futurist says the world population is on track to produce about 988 billion gigabytes of data per year by 2010. That's this week.
We search for music on iTunes. We search for TV on Hulu. On MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, we search for love, friends and contact.
We click REQUEST.
But where's Bin Laden?
Maybe he's in Pakistan. Maybe he's in Afghanistan. We haven't had a solid lead on al Qaida's leader since the battle of Tora Bora in the winter of 2001.
Blank box. Blinking cursor.
• • •
"The remarkable achievement of Google," Rick Fairlie wrote this month in PC Magazine, "is that it has become our brain."
Overstatement? Could be.
Try this then: "Google," Ken Auletta wrote earlier this year in his book Googled, "is the front door to the world."
The Google guys, Page and Sergey Brin, met as computer science graduate students in California, at Stanford, and in the past 11 years have gone from their dorm rooms in Palo Alto to a garage in Menlo Park to the 1.5 million-square-foot headquarters in Mountain View called the Googleplex and on to offices all over the planet.
The company has gone from 10,000 searches a day in 1998 to 100,000 in 1999 to being the world's largest search engine in 2000.
It went public in 2004. It bought YouTube in 2006. Google Mail came in 2004, Google Maps in 2005, Google Calendar in 2006. Revenues were $86 million in 2001, $439 million in 2002, $1.4 billion in 2003, $6.1 billion in 2005, $16.5 billion in 2007, more than $20 billion now. It became a word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. To google. You can do it in more than 100 different languages.
Look it up. Google Earth isn't just an app.
We search for news. We search for deals. We search for sex.
Our searches tell the story of the decade. They show sometimes what we need, but always what we want; sometimes who we strive to be, but always who we really are.
In 2001: World Trade Center, Pentagon, Osama bin Laden. Iraq was the No. 7 search in 2003.
The top four searches of 2004? Britney Spears. Paris Hilton. Christina Aguilera. Pamela Anderson.
In 2005: MySpace, Wikipedia, Katrina. In 2007: iPhone, Facebook, YouTube. In 2008: Obama, Palin, Fox News.
In 2009: unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure.
• • •
Back in May 2000, which wasn't that long ago, which was forever ago, the New Yorker's Michael Specter wrote a piece partly about Google in which he felt it necessary to define search engines: "programs that hunt for Web pages in response to specific words or phrases."
"Search and Deploy" was the story in which Page said what he said about junk, lies and chaos. Looking back, the quote can be read as almost prophetic, tautological verse:
The bigger the Internet gets
The more difficult it is
To find a simple, accurate answer
They are "utopians," the Google guys, one of Page's old professors once said, audacious and optimistic and with full faith in the power and the value of technology.
"Certainly," Brin said in Newsweek in 2004, "if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off."
"The solution," he said that same year in Playboy, "isn't to limit the information you receive. Ultimately you want to have the entire world's knowledge connected directly to your mind."
The interviewer asked: Is that what we have to look forward to?
"I hope so," Brin said.
• • •
We went in this decade from an all-time stock market high in 2000 to the worst recession since the Great Depression, from 4 percent unemployment to more than 10 percent, from unprecedented home ownership to unprecedented foreclosure.
Four-in-five Americans say household debt is a serious problem. The median household income went from $52,500 in 2000 to $50,303 last year. The percentage of us who have no health insurance went up. The percentage who trust our leaders went down.
"The Decade From Hell," Time called it, or "the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade." Lost control, lost security, lost ideas — like the idea that America is somehow different, sheltered, better.
Since 2002, according to Pew polls, satisfaction with the overall state of the country has declined. In 2006, according to a CNN poll, 54 percent of us considered the American Dream "unachievable."
Peter C. Whybrow wrote about this in 2005 in American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. "For many Americans," he said, "the hallowed search for happiness has been hijacked by a discomforting and frenzied activity."
"In America," Whybrow concluded, "we are not as happy as we are rich."
Abundance doesn't mean contentment, and the paradox of choice — the more we have, the more we want — is not unlike the paradox of search.
Sloan's short film from 2004 points out the good and the bad of this new information overload: "a summary of the world, deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before," the narrator says — also, though, too often "merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational."
This, at the end of the Search Decade, is what we've kind of always known, only in the extreme: The more good information we have, the more bad information we have, and it's up to us to sort it, sift it, interpret it.
It's not about having information. Because we're about to have it all. It's about using it. It's about what has to happen after taptaptap and typetypetype.
• • •
What Google searches best is the static Web. It doesn't search, or at least not as well, the "real-time" Web, the social networks, the status updates on Facebook or the tweets on Twitter.
"We'll look back at a decade of having our short-term information needs fulfilled," Mike Grehan of SearchEngineWatch.com said last week. "So satisfying your long-term information need is what this next decade will be about."
Blank box. Blinking cursor.
The new search is the old search.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.
Sources: Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, by Ken Auletta; Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know, by Randall Stross; Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America, by Kurt Andersen; The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, by John Zogby; The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, by Nicholas Carr; American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, by Peter C. Whybrow; The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz; The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, by Gregg Easterbrook; "Search and Deploy," The New Yorker, May 29, 2000, by Michael Specter; "The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?" Newsweek, Oct. 15, 2001, by Fareed Zakaria, "Rethinking the American Dream," Vanity Fair, April 2009, by David Kamp; "Lost decade," The Economist, March 13, 2009; "The Decade From Hell," Time, Dec. 7, 2009, by Andy Serwer; "The Ferality Show," New York, Dec. 14, 2009, by Michael Hirschorn.