Dec 22, 2009

Google, Rome, and Empire

2500 years ago, Europe was a filthy mess of dirt roads, battered and cracked by hooves in the summer and rutted by rude wheels in the winter. To travel from the British isles to the tip of the Apennine peninsula would have been the work of months — and messy and rough work at that. Around 450 BC, the Roman Twelve Tables specified (among many other things) the dimensions of roads, and methods borrowed from the Carthaginians standardized their construction to some extent. Mere centuries later, an unprecedented network of trade and communication had been established, some parts of which are still in use today. The Roman roads improved the entire world, and the fact that they were built, managed, and maintained by the Romans was as effective a weapon for Rome as the gladii wielded by the legions who patrolled them.

In the year MMIX Google revealed Chrome OS to the world. It was no more remarkable to onlookers than a single stone-paved road might have been to a Roman citizen in 400 BC. A decade or two from now, an historian might look back on the first few years of Google's expansion and think: how similar was that Roman's limited scope of observation to our own! For he saw a road, not the beginnings of an infrastructure which would span continents. And we see a suite of products, vessels for selling ads, not the start of a greater endeavor: a blueprint for connecting humanity in the 21st century.

I don't mean to overstate Google's importance. Just as the world was awaiting a Rome to civilize its mountains and valleys and connect their denizens, so now the world has been preparing for a Google to lay down the flagstones of a modern Appian Way.

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