Google, Panopticon, and Occupation-Specific Humour

A few weeks back, on the way home from the data center where my company rents rackspace I started going off on a ‘gee whiz’ rant with one of my coworkers. A bit of background – he’s a programmer who looks a bit like a younger, Chinese version of Bill Gates, he lives and breathes JAVA, his English is not perfect, and I’m … well, I can fake my way through a SQL query, but I usually have far more verbal diarrhea about human motivations or hair dye than the actual nuts and bolts inside this computer I’m typing at. It suffices to say we’re from different cultural niches (Anglo/Chinese, indie music-sociology type/data and code pro).

It started off where we both agreed that Google Earth is, well, cool. And then we talked a bit about how Google has done a surprising number of impressive things over the past year that may have very significant effects on our lives (Google Analytics, Google Scholar, all sorts of Google Maps mashups, Google Video, the Google API free-for-all, and so on).

Anyway, my gee whiz rant. I launch into one of my annoying ‘what’s coming’ monologues as I sometimes do (I can hear my partner groaning). I start talking about mashing up Google Video, Flickr, and Google Earth. And suddenly I’m describing this wild hypothetical website where users can look at a four-dimensional representation of a living, changing earth, from as many angles as there are video cameras positioned to capture them (or as there are 3D tweening and interpolation scripts to connect them all seamlessly). Users can rewind, playback, fast forward, zoom, pan, crane, tilt and have a bird’s eye view of any historical events that have been captured on video. As I’m weaving this tale of what could be, my coworker starts laughing a bit too hard, a bit uncontrollably, and at an increasing pitch.

I ask him, “yeah, wouldn’t that be hilarious?”. He calms down after a bit, and then, amid his remaining sputters of laughter, he blurts out, “Do you know how many servers you’d need to hold all that video?”, and then erupts again.

Then I saw the joke. This guy thinks in number of servers or clusters, number of lines of code. A Google Video Earth is not in and of itself a wild idea to him (though I think it’s hilarious, and if anyone ever pulls it off, I’ll be rolling in the aisles, half cracked up with maniacal glee, and half terrified of what’s next). But the mental image he built – of a cluster of servers the size of Earth itself – was the most ridiculous idea anyone ever suggested to him, whatever pedantic, human-centric app it was meant to run.

I suppose a fart joke would have been more immediate, universal, and efficient. But at least I made him laugh.

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