IN the past, the world was split up into countries and run by kings, presidents and governments.
That’s the way most of us think it still is – well, without many remaining kings.
The division into countries still causes a fair amount of trouble. And so do governments, who continue to labour under the same delusion as most of us, that they are still in charge.
In the future, the world will be run by a small handful of very big companies.
One of them, maybe the most powerful of all, has learned a big lesson about power.
It knows what most kings, presidents and governments have not known. That power doesn’t have to lie in weapons, or in having a big police force.
It doesn’t necessarily lie in oil (that’s the past, and the present, but not the future).
It doesn’t even lie in money – or not directly.
Power lies in information.
This company has more information than any organisation has ever had before. And it goes on collecting it, faster and faster.
It already knows more about you, me, almost everyone, than the spy-crazy Nazis knew about the ordinary German. More than the KGB knew about the citizenry of Soviet Russia.
More even than today’s surveillance-mad British state knows about us.
It makes George Smiley, James Bond and the late lamented News of the World look like toddlers in the playground of information-gathering.
It knows about everything you’ve bought, searched for or even looked at on the internet. It knows how long you looked, what page on what site you came to it from and where you went to look next.
It knows who your friends are. Where your house is and what the street outside it looks like.
If you use all its products – and more and more people do – it knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging or phone. And the content of all your messages, including voicemail.
If you carry a mobile device around with you – a laptop, a tablet computer or a smartphone – it knows where you spent last night. And every other night.
It knows everywhere you’ve been, how often and how long you spend there.
Like the sat-nav companies, it can track where you go by car. Unlike them, it can also tell where you travel by train, plane or on foot.
It probably knows your bank-card numbers, as well as your date of birth, your reading, watching and listening habits and your mother’s maiden name. You must just hope they keep these things to themselves.
Do you find all this scary, or comforting? There are, I suppose, elements of both. Depending on how far you trust the company to stick to its slogan: “Don’t be evil”.
And also how you think they might define “evil”.
Did I say this was the future? It isn’t. All this is true now.
So what about the future?
If its lawyers get its way the company will soon know the entire contents of every book ever printed, and most of the newspapers, magazines and pamphlets too.
But even that is really just part of the start.
What the company is especially good at learning is how to learn.
Every time its clever machines make a mistake – whether over your taste in music or the correct translation of a word from Lithuanian into Chinese – somebody somewhere soon corrects it for them. Probably simply by rephrasing a question or search term.
The company has machines that know how to recognise most words by sound in most languages and most accents.
Imagine how much mind-bogglingly more it could learn if it applied that know-how to every video clip uploaded to the net.
Nearly an hour of video content is added to YouTube every second. That’s a lot of video, a lot of information (of a sort).
And the company doesn’t just know about it. It owns it.
The company, as you’ve probably guessed, is Google.
It’s pretty much mapped, photographed and catalogued the world. And most of the people in it.
So what next?
Google’s research centre on the moon listens in to “the vast web of electromagnetic pulses that may contain signals from intelligent life forms in other galaxies, as well as a complete record of every radio or television signal broadcast from our own planet”.
OK, that was a joke. But it came from Google itself in the form of a job advertisement placed on April Fool’s Day.
And you know what they say about true words being spoken in jest.
Of course the moon base is science-fiction. But then doesn’t most of what I’ve described above sound like sci-fi?
It certainly would have back in 1999, when Google was merely the latest and trendiest internet search engine, with an index updated every few months. These days the update time can’t even be measured in seconds.
But about that “Don’t be evil” thing.
This morning I looked up care for the elderly, clicked on a link that should have been for the charity Age UK – and was sent by Google to an ad for a funeral service.
That’s some way short of evil in the Hitler or Stalin sense. But it’s not a good step.