Was There Life Before Google (BG)? Sure, but try finding it!

Like many things, is Google a mixed blessing?


I now divide my life into two distinctive eras: Before Google (BG) and After Google (AG). The monumental ‘dividing event’ occurred somewhere in 1999 <em>Anno Domini (AD), when the now ubiquitous online phenomenon entered my life.

It was a good friend, photojournalist and new media activist Shahidul Alam, who first told me about this new kind of search engine with a funny-sounding name. Google. At that time, it was just a noun.

I was already weary of the simple, simplistic and yellow-page like listings offered by Yahoo, and welcomed this refreshing change. I immediately switched — and haven’t looked at another search engine in the past dozen years. And I also liked its cheerful, multi-coloured logo.

Things weren’t so slick or quick at the beginning, and even Google was learning by doing. We were still in the dial-up era, when 56 kbps Internet access speeds were still mostly an aspiration. Besides, there was far less content online, and far fewer ways to access and process it.

Where Google stood apart, from every other service, was in its better targeted search results. The research of any given quest was still in our hands, but narrowing down was helpful.

We’ve come a long way, and eons in Internet terms, since those early and murky days. With my always on, reasonably fast broadband connection, I now Google effortlessly many times day and night: I know I’m leaving a steady datastream of everything I look for, and that it can be traced, analysed and interpreted by anyone who can force Google to part with this back-end data (usually governments). But that’s the price I pay for Google’s versatile services.

I touched on this when I talked about ’21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers’ last month at Sri Lanka Press Institute on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2011. Here’s my PowerPoint:

A few weeks ago I tweeted “Was there life before Google?” My own tongue-in-cheek answer was: Sure, but I can’t easily locate anything from that period!

Not everyone appreciates Tweeted humour. I received a range of replies online and offline, mostly negative. Some cyber-skeptics faulted me for ‘deifying an American corporation like Google that is out take over the world’ (they haven’t heard the news!).

Others, school teachers and librarians among them, told me that Google has plenty to answer for. They lamented that many people have now forgotten the art and science of looking for a specific piece of information and imagery using well-organised information sources that combine physical and computer-based services. Professional information managers view Google as a superficial, hit-or-miss, much diluted version of their noble craft. Cyber take-away to be consumed on the run, as opposed to a gourmet meal to be partaken and enjoyed at leisure.

Sounds familiar?

I’m old enough to have used libraries diligently and regularly for several years of my working life. I still do, when I can’t easily locate something online — especially historical content that remains under-represented or non-existent on the web. For me, it’s not a question of either/or.

In fact, my frustration is that enough content from the pre-Internet period (much of history) is not yet available online in properly searchable ways. That includes my own personal archive. I’ve been producing journalistic output in the media for 25 years in print, radio and television outlets. The electronic media output is completely lost, and practically everything I wrote before 2000 AD (or Year 1 of my personal AG) is also not online. And my output in Sinhala, including my current Sunday column in the Ravaya newspaper, is not available online.

No, I don’t idolise Google as a global deity. But I thank Google a few times every day. Increasingly often, that includes times when I want to locate a specific reference to something I myself have written and published. This is what happens after writing several thousand pieces on a wide range of subjects and topics.

I envy those who can still recall precise details of their own vast bibliographies. As for me, I routinely turn to my usually reliable and well-informed friend Google. She rarely lets me down.

PS: One facility I stubbornly refuse to use is GMail. Google’s idea of a web-based email service never appealed to me, a Digital Immigrant who is not fully convinced about storing all my correspondence ‘in the cloud’. What really puts me off is how fleeting, erratic and often utterly incomprehensible GMail users are in their replies. There are a few honourable exceptions, but most GMailers I know are a confused and confusing bunch. I love you, Google, but when it comes to email, thanks but I’ll continue to operate my own accounts, branded on my own domain name.

Passing the buck or passing the planet? Saving the Planet is everybody’s business!

Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma

Passing the buck? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma

This was one of the most memorable cartoons drawn by W.R. Wijesoma, Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent political cartoonist (and my one-time colleague). If I remember right, it first appeared sometime in the late 1980s in ‘Mihikatha’, Sri Lanka’s first all-environmental newspaper.

Alas, both Mihikatha and Wijesoma are no more among us. But the message in this cartoon is more timely than ever before.

“Is this what we are going to hand over to our future generations? Please……no!” was the emphatic message from Yugratna Srivastava, a 13-year-old Indian girl who addressed over 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters on 22 September 2009 for the historic Summit on Climate Change.

Passing the ball – or buck – is something that governments are good at. Most governments are so narrowly focused on the now and here, and sometimes rightfully so, that they have neither the time nor interest for medium to long term scenarios. As I wrote earlier this week, “it’s going to take many more meetings, bickering and hard bargaining before the leaders begin to think in terms of the next generation.”

This is where citizen action comes in. Governments are not going to save this planet from environmental catastrophes; if at all, it would be the ordinary people. This is the premise of TVE Asia Pacific’s latest Asian TV series, Saving the Planet.

Where does the buck stop?

Where does the buck stop?

Governments, experts and big corporations alone cannot solve all these problems. Real change requires changing how each and every human being lives and works. Education becomes the biggest key to achieving environmentally sustainable development at local and global levels.

Filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia, Saving the Planet profiles groups working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action that will help humans to live in harmony with the planet. They often work without external funding and beyond the media spotlight. They have persisted with clarity of vision, sincerity of purpose and sheer determination. Their stories inspire many others to pursue grassroots action for a cleaner and safer planet.

We tried out a creative idea for the series opening sequence (20 seconds), an extended version of which became the series trailer (see below). It was planned and filmed in all the six countries where the stories came from — Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand. In each country, our roving director-producers filmed different individuals – young and old, men and women, in all their Asian diversity – passing around an inflated ball made to look like planet Earth.

I know my colleagues had fun filming these sequences, and back in our studio, it was also great fun to mix and match these various shots to create the apparently seamless passing around of our planet in peril. (Who said planet saving cannot be fun?)

Watch Saving the Planet trailer (1 minute):

Now it can be revealed: our original inspiration came from an unexpected source: the world’s largest media corporation, Google! In one brainstorming, our then production coordinator Buddhini Ekanayake remembered an open challenge that Google had made online just before introducing their email service, GMail. Google asked people to “imagine how an email message travels around the world” using a video camera.

In all, Google received over 1,100 clips from fans in more than 65 countries around the world — each one of them a different creative idea, playing with the iconic Gmail M-velope.

“The clips you submitted were amazing and it was hard to choose selections for the final video,” Google said when releasing the outcome of this collaborative video project.

See Gmail: Behind the Scenes (Final Cut)

Read more about the GMail collaborative video on Google’s blog

Watch all submissions Google received for its GMail promo video.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Talent borrows. Genius steals.” You can decide which of these we have done!