Is today’s Google yesterday’s Google: The Rectification of Names
January 12, 2012
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Confucius speaks repeatedly about the essential moral imperative for the intellectual: “The rectification of names” (zhengming 正名 in Chinese). What Confucius meant by the rectification of names was the resolution of the discord between the names that we employ to describe institutions and systems and the reality of how those institutions evolve and transform. In a sense we can explain many of the moral imperatives of the political realm in terms of the rectification of names: government, universities, lawyers, doctors, the military are not what they once were. They have become corrupted or debased with the passage of time. Perhaps it would be better for us to redefine what is meant by a “corporation” or “The Department of Defense” rather than getting angry at current institutions for not being what they once were, perhaps.
Obviously rapid technological change raises new challenges for us. It is possible for institutions to move further away from their original purpose faster than every before. The most basic items in our vocabulary: “money,” “government,” or “information” cry out for a comprehensive redefinition-and yet none is forthcoming.
Google is a case in point. The company Google has operated since 1998 and has consistently increased its size and complexity. We know the name well, and we are familiar with the search function. But we have a very vague sense of exactly how that search engine works, or exactly what that term “Google” means. Not only has Google diversified as a company, the manner in which searches are conducted and information is gathered is clearly evolving as well. For that matter Google has altered the manner in which information about the world is presented to us.
I am tempted to suggest that Google today is profoundly different than Google in 1998, or Google in 2005, or in 2009. I would even suggest that Google is different in some profound manner from what it was six months ago.
But all of us, except perhaps a few, are blind to the evolution of a system
so close to the center of our lives and so close to the access to information we require. I would suggest that there is a growing, quite risky. blindness in contemporary society with regards to the the basic institutions around us. We really have no records around us to tell us how something like Google or Wikipedia works, and no real way to know if either were to suddenly radically shift in their nature or function.
To put it another way, the most profound shifts in our age may take place without our even being aware of it.