March 11, 2007
Freebase is exactly the sort of thing that you only take seriously once you know Danny Hillis is behind it. Hillis is a bit of an underground hero in a world where many of his nerd peers skyrocket to fame in the business press, if not in popular culture as a whole. A nerd's nerd, his best known company went belly up in the 80's, his current one flies well under the radar and the NYT article linked above introduces him by mentioning his time as a Disney Imagineer, although it's never been clear he did anything notable there. But that first company was years ahead of it's time, his slim book Pattern on the Stone is easily the definitive text on how computers actually work and his Long Now Foundation one of the more audacious and mindboggling non-profits around (and one in which I'm technically a "charter member".) So yeah, when Danny Hillis launches a venture, you know the nerds at least are listening.
Freebase is the latest in a long series of essentially failed attempts to transform information into meaning. Or more specifically to transform computer readable information into computer readable meaning. Many have walked that path before, and in the end there is only one real success story, but that success story was Google with their Page Rank algorithm that made them a success. And like Google, Hillis is starting this venture with the best of intentions, and like Google Hillis is already starting say things that should make you very afraid.
The rhetoric of Freebase is all about freedom, openness and sharing. Everything about it says this is for you, this is for free this for the good of the world. Yet with a simple turn of a phrase or perhaps a slip of the tongue, Hillis lets on that he doesn't just want to share a lot of information, he wants it all. “We’re trying to create the world’s database, with all of the world’s information,” are his words and they probably sound familiar to anyone who has read a bit about Google over the past couple years. Despite loudly saying "don't be evil" Google is known to talk about the goal of "organizing all the world's information."* A phrase perhaps better suited for a cartoon supervillian than a large corporation.
The all might sound innocuous enough at first, until you place it into the context of Google's own actions. Perhaps you have a Gmail account, or at least send emails to someone who does. All the worlds info includes everything on those emails, do you want Google organizing all that information? The Gmail terms of service originally indicated that emails you delete might not actually be deleted off their servers, does that make "all the world's information" sound a little different then before? Some information is meant to disappear, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Google it seems is not willing to make that distinction, although ironically they more than any other entity have the power to make things disappear. Instead of a situation were information is either available or not, we are creeping towards a world where information is either available through the front of Google, or it's only available the back, to those who can move through the backdoors of their databases.
Now I'm a huge fan of Hillis' work, and on a certain level Freebase is designed precisely to mitigate some of Google's emerging database monopoly, yet it's pushing forward with the exact same hubris that has made Google's "don't be evil" mantra such a sick joke upon the world. The rhetoric of freedom and openness may sound as universal as "all the worlds information", but it speaks to humans, while the information gathering is done by Turing machines. Hillis and the Freebase team are probably genuine in their interest in doing something for the world, but in the end they can only represent the interests of those that share their tech forward beliefs. Nestled safely in Silicon Valley it's probably easy to think the whole world shares those sentiments, but nothing could be further from the truth. The result it seems is a strange incubator where the supernerds slowly morph into supervillians, bent upon conquering the world (of information.)
*Google seems to have backed off this as public stance of late, but it still pops up on their site in places like their corporate philosophy page.