What exactly is the point of the world-wide-web? Coming up with an answer is akin to defining "zeitgeist". Which brings us to Google, the world’s most used online search provider and a multinational business worth almost £75 billion, the gracious host of a two-day talking shop that went under the banner 'Zeitgeist '07 Europe'.
So what is zeitgeist? Well, one definition, from the German word’s Latin roots is "guardian spirit of our century": which, again, brings us to Google.
Having a conversation with Google’s CEO Eric Schmitt is a little like running a Google query. Ask him a question and he’ll tell you that he’s thinking it’s a good question, an interesting question, a question that might take a while to properly answer. All very flattering, all very Google: a personalised response attuned to the individual. And then he gives you your answer.
On politics Schmitt thinks that the structure and purpose of political parties will remain pretty much the same for many years to come. He says that speaking with the leaders of Rwanda or Côte d’Ivoire has taught him that people want institutions because these best protect the people from despots and the mob.
But Schmitt also said that politicians are being forced to become more like the publicity-addicts that populate facebook, youtube and myspace: Dave Cameron influenced more by Paris than Steve Hilton. He pondered the future of traditional politicians who’s every slip and foible can be recorded, archived and retrieved by everyone, everywhere for ever. Then he suggested that a wise public, an informed public would discern and forgive.
Not least, he argued, because we have Google to help us sift the information, gleaning what we may from the great mass of data already accessible on the net.
Later Schmitt suggested that greater transparency and accountability are direct consequences of the effect of widespread access to the internet. In Schmitt’s view this is a good thing. It will continue to change the way that governments and businesses behave. He asks if Iraq would have been invaded if the public had had the chance to Google the same WMD data that various Governments used to justify war.
He spoke about the evolution of the human finger (it’s remained unchanged for 10,000 years and is limiting the development of the mobile phone), the challenges facing daily newspapers (there will soon be fewer with even fewer regular readers), the inevitable questioning of authority (a good thing), the unfortunate necessity of adhering to local laws (tricky but this really does come with the territory - Thailand’s King really is divine), media access in the three walled-huts of rural Vietnam (proof that people really do value on knowledge) and China (it is, he says, better to be engaged than estranged).
As with a Google search, each response threw up more queries, more thoughts and more ideas to follow. Schmitt had said early on in our conversation that Google helps people search for truth.
Our dilemma is choosing which truth – China’s, yours, mine or Google’s? Maybe we should Google for the answer.