August 22, 2013

Google, greping and groking

In their recent book, my colleagues Dan Sarewitz and Braden Allenby put it this way (parenthetically, I might add):  “Turning a corporate brand into a verb is one flag of a socially interesting phenomenon, and in this case ‘to google’ is a profound statement about important, and very new, changes in cognitive systems.” 
I have resisted most verbifications and I find the “google” one particularly problematic, but that is tangential to my story here.  What is interesting to me here is that in my mind and often my vocalizations, when many people say “google”, I say “grep”.  “grep” actually is a verb in that all unix commands are verbs.  “grep” is also an acronym for “get regular expression print” and I used that verb a lot in my graduate school days.  Many a list functioned as a very flat database and coughed up just the number or string that I needed through my clever use of grep and its associated regular expressions (yes, I was that guy). 
So when I think about searching that darn near (?) incomprehensible thing we call the internet, my brain makes leaps back to horrendous and darn near unmanageable text files full of geodetic data and the beauty of grep.  With a simple command such as “grep DIAB* stalist” I could find everything that the file called “stalist” had to tell me about a stations whose first letters were “DIAB” (with a simple flag that I no longer remember, I could tell grep to ignore case as well).  
In my mind then, one does not google the internet, one greps it.  All that Google has done is provide a really big incredibly interesting flat file for me to search.  And this amplifies Allenby and Sarewitz’s point (and provides an example of Gibson’s attributed observation regarding the distribution of the future) - we already are transhuman.
The question of groking remains.