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Google Print and the Ultimate Network

George Dyson has a typically futuristic but sober perspective on Google and Google Print:

Hardware-based content-addressable memory is used, on a local scale, in certain dedicated high-speed network routers, but template-based addressing did not catch on widely until Google (and brethren) came along. Google is building a new, content-addressable layer overlying the von Neumann matrix underneath. The details are mysterious but the principle is simple: it’s a map. And, as Dutch (and other) merchants learned in the sixteenth century, great wealth can be amassed by Keepers of the Map.

We call this a “search engine” — a content-addressable layer that makes it easier for us to find things, share ideas, and retrace our steps. That’s a big leap forward, but it isn’t a universe-shifting revolution equivalent to von Neumann’s breaking the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things in 1945.

However, once the digital universe is thoroughly mapped, and initialized by us searching for meaningful things and following meaningful paths, it will inevitably be colonized by codes that will start doing things with the results. Once a system of template-based-addressing is in place, the door is opened to code that can interact directly with other code, free at last from a rigid bureaucracy requiring that every bit be assigned an exact address. You can (and a few people already are) write instructions that say “Do THIS with THAT” — without having to specify exactly Where or When. This revolution will start with simple, basic coded objects, on the level of nucleotides heading out on their own and bringing amino acids back to a collective nest. It is 1945 all over again.

It gets better. I think. Frankly, this is spinning-head stuff.

My visit to Google? Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” explained one of my hosts after my talk. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.”

When we’re talking about who gets to control the creation of a new form of collective intelligence, I think that our usual tools of copyright analysis just fail us. Joe characterized my Comment on his Boilerplate post as a new blend of equity and incentives-based analysis. It occurs to me that George Dyson’s take on Google Print calls for that sort of blend, but on steroids. Call it a reverse doctrine of equivalents for copyright law: when the result of nominal infringement represents a staggering advance for society, then copyright should let the infringement go. If Dyson is right, that may be the principle to apply to Google Print.

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