OK Computer – you have more and more mail

[I am working an a book about the year 1997, the year that made the future. Made up of 26 short chapters, alphabetically labelled with one of '97's cultural highlights, it will offer a series of reflections and some polemics, about the year. This is an early draft of chapter 15. Any comments and improvements would be much appreciated. There is no referencing as yet... tut tut.]

As an undergraduate studying literature in the late 1980s, I had a na├»ve but genuine love of pure maths. I was no good at it, but it beguiled me, its beauty and elegance a constant source of mystified delight. One day I was introduced to the notion of a googol. Back in those days, a googol’s primary meaning was as the number 10100. This pleasing looking figure belies its enormity. That is 10 followed by one hundred zeros, or 100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000. This is a baffling, impossible number. I wrote it down on a (very large) piece of paper and put brackets around the zeros in groups of six starting from the end.

10,000(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000)(000000). This, when said out loud, gives us ten thousand million million million million million million million million million million million million million million million million. A googolplex is a ten followed by a google of noughts. Carl Sagan speculates that it would be physically impossible to write this number as it would require more space than exists in the known universe. Envisioned differently, a typical book of 400 pages with 50 lines per page and 50 zeros per line would accommodate one million zeros and weigh about 100 grams. For the collected works of the googolplex this becomes 1093 kilograms. The Milky Way is estimated to weigh 2.5 x 1042 kilograms.

These numbers are staggering, and except for some helpful points of comparison, largely useless: sublime and ridiculous they push us beyond the known or knowable world into the sphere of the intractable. Or they did to me anyway. Luckily, two computer science PhD students at Stamford University were less overwhelmed by the size of the numbers. Indeed, the very magnitude of a googol was what compelled them to use it to name their incipient search engine in order to demonstrate its potential scale. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were investigating the possible mathematical properties of the internet and this led to a jointly authored paper called The Anatomy of a large-scale hypertextualweb based search engine. This was in 1998, the year after the pair changed the name of their idea from BackRub to Google (misspelling the huge number and creating one of the most important brands in the early 21st century). Personally, the pair have achieved massive wealth, almost as impossible to fathom as a googol: both are reputedly worth around $45 billion. This has come about due to the staggering success of their project, Google (with its pleasingly playfully named headquarters, The GooglePlex).

When the pair initially set up BackRub in its most rudimentary form in Page’s dorm room in 1996 they used their basic HTML knowledge to create a simple user interface with little in the way of elaborate visuals. Instead their interest was in discovering how to use the backmarkers of websites linkable to each other. In early 1997, still running off Stamford’s web site and still called BackRub, the site offered some data on usage from late 1996. It said, Total indexable HTML urls: 75.2306 Million and Total content downloaded: 207.022 gigabytes.
Realising the potential impact of their invention, they registered it as google.stamford.edu on September 15th, 1997. A year later it became a fully incorporated company and had an index of 60 million web pages. An initial investment of $100,000 allowed for the project to develop itself to the extent that by June 1999 the company secured $25 million of equity investment. Five years later, after hiring a CEO and recognizing that they would need to relinquish some ownership to fund further expansion, there was an Initial Public Offering of 19, 605, 052 shares at $85 per share. Of these, the ever-whimsical Page and Brin floated 14, 142, 135 (the square root of two is 1.4142135, of course).

 This provided a cash value of $1.67 billion and a market capitalization value of more than $20 billion. Within 12 months this rose to $52 billion and a further stock sale increased Google’s cash capacity to over $7 billion.
Size and wealth apart, the impact of Google has been enormous. Arguably the most significant shift in the access to information since the printing press, Google’s search engine has transformed the ease with which knowledge can be acquired and disseminated. Whether this will be seen as a positive or a negative shift will be up to history to decide, but the fact of its impact is undeniable. And this has prompted further innovation and partnerships with agencies such as NASA
and corporations such as Time Warner. Alongside this is the rivalry with other companies: Google’s Chrome browser to compete with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (which itself ousted Netscape back in 1997 as the browser of choice); and Gmail to compete with Hotmail (which Microsoft acquired for $400 million in 1997 from its designers and re-branded as MSN Hotmail).
Away from the Google – Microsoft rivalries and expansion, 1997 saw other areas of social media emerge. Although Facebook itself would not be launched until 2004, the domain name Facebook.com was registered on March 28th 1997, the BBC launched its first web-based news site, and Netflix launched. At the time it was a rental mail service for DVDs (themselves a new invention, being introduced in Canada, the USA Central America and Indonesia in 1997, having been launched in Japan two years previously). Netflix would revolutionise the media industry through nits streaming platform in 2007 and then by producing and distributing its own content from 2013.
Google, Hotmail, Facebook, Netflix, the BBC website,… the modern world in its digital manifestations is given a tremendous push into the future in 1997, and that future is well and truly dominating us today – the companies and individuals who two decades ago were innovators and risk takers are today multi-national corporations, working with other multi-national corporations in ever more complex conglomerates of mergers, sales, buy-outs, take overs. Hundreds of billions of dollars, billions of webpages, thousands of hours of content (archived and newly produced) come to us. We shall have to see where it all leads but maybe we should have called the Karma Police  from Radiohead’s 1997 album, OK Computer, and have arrested the man who talks in maths: all those zeros, make my head buzz like a fridge.

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