Monday, October 03, 2005

Two Cultures: Yahoo and Google, and a Look Ahead

"The number 2 is a very dangerous number: that is why the dialectic is a dangerous process. Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion." --C.P. Snow, "The Two Cultures" (1959)

"It is probably too early to speak of a third culture . . . But I am now convinced that this is coming. When it comes . . . the focus of this argument will be shifted, in a direction which will be more profitable to us all." --C.P. Snow, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look" (1963)


As I read the news this morning about Yahoo's new foray into the book scanning business, following Google's lead last year, I was reminded of C.P. Snow's well-known essay "The Two Cultures." Writing some 50 years ago, C.P. Snow had in mind, of course, the rift between literary intellectuals and scientists, two cultures that hardly communicate with one another. A similar disparity in underlying philosophy is evident in the publicly visible actions of arch rivals Yahoo and Google.

Historically (i.e., on the scale of "Internet time," wherein ten years are an eternity), back in 1995, Yahoo came to life as a popular human-powered directory of the best of the Internet, only to be surpassed five years later by Google with its innovative automated relational search engine capable of outfoxing Yahoo's human content editors in breadth, depth and even relevancy in most searches we as consumers have interest in doing. Yahoo has attempted more recently to catch up with Google in search but, when measured by consumer reach, Yahoo appears to have lost the battle. Score: Google one, Yahoo zero. Or, to put it another way: one victory for the scientists, and one defeat for those of a more literary persuasion.

Last year Yahoo made a splash by opening a new office in the bright lights and glamor of Hollywood, presumably with the intention of snuggling up a bit closer to the creative talent and celebrities of the entertainment world. Accentuating its contrasting style, Google just last week announced collaboration with true rocket scientists from NASA's Ames Research Center to explore everything from supercomputing to bio-info-nano convergence. What could be farther apart than the glitter of a Hollywood movie screen and the drone of a NASA spaceship control room?

Also last year, Google created a stir by beginning to scan books from Stanford University's library, for the purpose of expanding the electronic universe accessible to their search algorithms. Google's objectively comprehensive though indiscriminate approach to selecting books for scanning piqued the ire of publishers and authors alike, who fretted over the legality of Google's placing copyrighted material into a public database, and remain unappeased by Google's assurance that only snippets, not whole books, are to be displayed in the search results. Then, this morning's news shows Yahoo teamed up with the newly formed Open Content Alliance, sensitively taking a more publisher- and author-friendly approach to book scanning, by seeking permission from copyright licensees prior to electronically scanning the pages. Although Google is still in court from the fallout of its initial scanning efforts, and Yahoo's participation in the Open Content Alliance is just beginning, I venture a guess at the eventual outcome, which I believe will be a victory for Yahoo's measured approach and a little egg on Google's face. Updated scorecard: Google and Yahoo tied at one apiece.

I do not claim to be have the foresight to know whether Google's "scientific" methodology or Yahoo's more "literary" inclinations will win out in the end, and, in fact, I suspect that it could be neither. To borrow and modernize a C.P. Snow analogy, what could result instead is the development of a "third culture," one that contributes to bridging the chasm and concurrently redefines the Internet. Extrapolating from the progress being made by open-source software (Linux, Firefox, etc.), wikis (e.g., Wikipedia), consumer-generated content (blogging, photo sharing, etc.), social networking sites and other decentralized movements, I wonder if what lies ahead is a diffuse form of Web "ownership" in which this time it is all of us users-at-large who co-own the content and share the entire benefit, without another pair of young Internet billionaires being minted in the process.

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