March 12 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
By Annalee Newitz
FOR THE PAST several days I've been dreaming about the underappreciated first law of thermodynamics. In a nutshell: you can't create or destroy energy; you can only convert it from one form into another. This helps me think more analytically about boiling water for coffee in the morning. Electricity is converted into heat, which is converted into steam, which is converted into a warm caffeinated drink that my body will convert into yummy little phosphates.
The first law also explains why I've been Googling obsessively. Perhaps you, too, have fallen prey to the dangerous, compulsive urge to search the Internet for kicks. It always starts innocently enough. There are so many things you've been trying to remember: the Roman name for France, the definition of a neurotransmitter, the release date of Clint Eastwood's first spaghetti western. But, as the blog-afflicted already know, any bit of information can lead to a semi-hallucinatory, rapturous journey through site after site, as you search for answers to new questions your original search has aroused.
Looking for information about rulings on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Operation Candyman, I landed at LawMeme (www.lawmeme.com) and realized I'd always wanted to know more about why several people were recently arrested in Iran for engaging in cyberdating. And that reminded me I'd been meaning to look into getting a schematic for an orgone accumulator a quacky device intended to collect life-giving energy related to orgasms which of course led me to some really insane Web sites written in German. Which, for some reason, incited me to berate myself for not knowing how internal combustion engines work. Ultimately, I wound up spending three hours researching car engines at HowStuffWorks (www.howstuffworks.com) and teaching myself how to build a potato cannon.
But back to thermodynamics. Consider this correlative to the first law: you cannot create or destroy information; you can only convert it from one form into another. I've found this is particularly true during times of profound stress. The more information I get about President George W. Bush's stance on Iraq, the greater my urge to leap from Washingtonpost.com to Expatica.com, a lovely site I've found for expats living in Holland. After Bush tried for the zillionth time to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein was dangerous because he "funded" groups like al-Qaeda, I spent hours glued to articles on Expatica about how to handle the Dutch bureaucracy when you need a living permit in Amsterdam.
Wait right there, you say. Yes, you can point and click to convert information about Bush into information about escaping to a better land, but what about the first part of the first law? Surely information can be destroyed. What about censorship and shutter control and that guy who recently got arrested in a New York mall for trespassing after he refused to take off a T-shirt that read, "Give peace a chance"?
The first law still holds. Information cannot be destroyed; it can only be turned into another kind of information. Bush converts the truth about who actually helped create al-Qaeda the United States into antiterrorist propaganda. In fact, let's give the first law a quantum twist: the attempt to destroy information actually leads to its proliferation. When you can't get any news about what's really happening with disarmament in Iraq, you find yourself searching for more information any information. It's a way of feeling like you're doing something, finding something out, even when what you really want to know is being withheld. Call it compensatory Googling, a kind of new-media booby prize.
When it feels like my access to knowledge is being tightly regulated, it's only natural that I would start frantically trolling the Internet. It's one of the most complex information systems humans have ever created. Maybe if I just visit Google often enough and plug in the right keywords, I'll find out what the fuck is happening.
But then I remember that Google is the only search engine I ever use. In fact, Google has become so hegemonic that many people describe searching the Web by using the verb "to Google." This means that when I search, I use only one algorithm, and it's one I neither understand nor control. It's not even an unfettered algorithm, since Google occasionally refuses to display the results of certain searches. Google also owns several databases, such as the Usenet archive, which means it controls a chunk of the data I plunder and my ability to access it.
The information is out there. What will it turn into?
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who just sucked up a giant bong hit of data and visited www.unisolv.com/images/bird.htm. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.