The Bloor Perspective: Cybernetic totalism, ASP comeback and Google's glory

This week Robin Bloor and his team contemplate our fascination with the computer, are nice to ASPs and look at Google's popularity.

This week Robin Bloor and his team contemplate our fascination with the computer, are nice to ASPs and look at Google's popularity.

Why is it that when it comes to a discussion of technology of the "is it good or is it bad?" type, there never seems to be a middle way. It's either how technology will transform life into a white light nirvana or how it will be the ultimate evil precipitating the equivalent of millennial meltdown. In the light of a new Steven Spielberg movie called A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I'm sure that these polarities will be examined and re-examined. Basically, the Spielberg movie features a robotic boy named David who comes fully wired and under a factory warranty to love, a concept which overlaps the domains of the geeks and the theologians. Bill Joy, in an issue of Wired magazine, declared us "on the cusp of further perfection of extreme evil". His article, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us stirred comment worldwide with a letter to the Times comparing Joy's essay to the famous letter Albert Einstein wrote in 1939 alerting President Roosevelt to the fact that scientists might soon be able to build a nuclear bomb. I would posit a guess that most readers are probably at the other end of the spectrum, that side of the computer/humanity discussion which Jason Lanier labels cybernetic totalism. Lanier, a pioneer in and inventor of the term virtual reality and a cyber luminary in his own right, remains a fan "of the global flowering of computer culture", but is deeply troubled by a faith in computers so intense that the machine becomes some people's model of reality. What troubles Lanier most is the conviction held by cybernetic totalists that biology and physics will soon meld with computer power, creating a hybrid of life and machine. So what exactly is cybernetic totalism as branded by Lanier? Basically, it's the ultimate conviction that biology and physics will soon meld with computer power, creating a hybrid of life and machine. This spawn will feature the best of both mankind and machine and will be able to self-replicate. Lanier himself writes in his essay One Half of a Manifesto: "There is a real chance that evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, Moore's Law fetishizing, and the rest of the package, will catch on in a big way, as big as Freud or Marx did in their times. Or bigger, since these ideas might end up essentially built into the software that runs our society and our lives. If that happens, the ideology of cybernetic totalist intellectuals will be amplified from novelty into a force that could cause suffering for millions of people." So, dear readers, where do you stand on this? ASPs on the up Application service providers (ASPs) were once seen as the Holy Grail of the IT world. ASP, like so many recent developments in IT, was hopelessly over-hyped. The problem was that the ASP model was - quite frankly - hopeless. The services offered allowed little in the way of customisation. Industry based templates are fine for providing "out of the box" functionality for some of today's more complex software solutions but sooner or later the user will want to change things and the ASP model allowed little flexibility. Times are changing. ASP vendors, those that are left, have listened to customers and are adapting their offerings accordingly. The slowdown of the economy has meant that organisations are looking for cost management initiatives and the financial benefits offered by the ASP model are looking increasingly attractive. Technology has advanced and the degree of customisation available is slowly improving. The phenomenal growth of outsourcing, the old stalwart of service provision, only goes to show that's the way things are moving. IT as a commodity isn't quite there yet, but the market has now picked up the pace and the old outsourcing selling adage of "focus on core business" is now, more than ever before, being adopted by many organisations. The vendors must now respond. They must focus on their own core business and delivering services - what the customers want, how they want them, when they want them and with a compelling value proposition. Go-go Google For some time now, Google has been my favourite search engine. It is simple and effective, lacking the clutter of advertisements and features that have accumulated on most search sites. It seems that I'm not alone. Google's growth has made it profitable in a tough climate for internet businesses. Google has adopted a unique approach, keeping its advertising low key and in plain text. The interesting thing is that Google claims significantly higher clickthrough rates for its dull adverts than internet averages. Users also praise Google for its plain and simple style. Oh, and Google has so far avoided accusations of slanting its search results to favour advertisers. Other facilities are being added slowly, including current work to create a newsgroup reading service. Google established significant potential in this area by purchasing the remnants of the late, lamented Deja.com, which held a substantial archive of newsgroup material. One man who clearly has faith in Google is Eric Schmidt, former chief executive of Novell. In March he became chairman of the company and also became a significant investor in it. He was immediately rewarded by Google becoming, for the first time, the number one US search engine, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. Schmidt has gone on to become chief executive. It must be a relief for him to work in a technology company with a straightforward business model. Despite Schmidt's efforts, Novell failed to establish a clear role in the IT market. Whatever future commercial developments may hold, Google's popularity is currently based on superior technology. The company's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were postgraduate students when they concluded that early search engines came up with too many irrelevant results. They attributed this to simple text searching, and replaced it with an algorithmic formula described as link analysis. It seems to work, and for me, Google is one of the essential ways to find a productive route through the forest of information on the internet.