This is the 21st century. Not so long ago, that number was synonymous with science-fiction. The world was changing slowly enough that it would take a century for things to become fully weird and enhanced to the point of seeming magical.

Now our science-fiction horizon has shrunk to a few decades. And even as I write this, new discoveries are made and technologies released that make the present amazingly fleeting and regularly spark flashes of wonders and magic in real-time.

However, with a shorter fiction span, our capacity for amazement has also diminished. We are becoming dulled by all this extraordinary stuff we get bombarded with on a daily basis and things that maybe should leave us in awe barely register as cool and not bad.

In the techie news these days, two headlines have caught my attention. The first one is the release by Google of its beta web browser, Chrome. That Google should take such an avenue is hardly surprising. The web has become a superpower, taking an increasingly central place in our society; anybody smart – and the Google team obviously is – would decide that to better control such potential, one needs to diversify (check), innovate to capture the attention of a bored public (check), become better at what they do than anybody else (check), and offer not only tools, but the entire toolshed, complete with a roof, power supply and lighting. In comes Chrome. Check.

Claiming to be faster-than-any-other-browser-period, Google’s newcomer also features the company’s now legendary searching simplicity and more important yet, it takes a very large step towards independent web applications and the eventual – by unavoidable – complete bypass of operating systems (yeah, you can read Windows here, and not so between the lines) in favor of a fully sustainable web-based environment.

Chrome is only in its beta phase, of course. Lots remains to be said and done and bugs are very present, like a major incompatibility with Window Blinds which for now makes Chrome useless to me. But Firefox is feeling the heat and will issue a 3.1 release that aims at countering Chrome’s speed advantage. In any case, make no mistake about it: this is History in the making.

Then there’s Google’s (yes, them again) Picasa Web Albums latest innovation. You might have heard of face recognition technology; if you own a decent and recent point-and-shoot camera, the odds are you’re using it daily, knowingly or not. It detects human faces in a shot and allows the camera to focus and expose selectively. Picasa, being an online photo gallery system, obviously doesn’t have a need for focusing pictures. Instead, the design team has chosen to focus on labeling, which after all, is one of Google’s major strengths (think of Gmail’s very convenient labels).

So how does face recognition technology come into play within Picasa? Easy. Upon first use, the site scans your entire collection of photo albums, searching for faces and patterns. The process takes a few minutes, after which you are served probable matches, in groups of 5 to 15 or so pictures, of the same person. (Granted, I’m not the ideal test user because my Picasa albums feature predominantly… the same person.) ;-) Still. It bloody works. So all I had to do for most of these groups of pictures was assign a name tag to them, new or chosen from my contact list (uh-uh, Google’s tentacles already span many an application). That’s it. Fast and efficient. And from now on, Picasa will analyze the pictures I upload and scan them for faces, which if found, will trigger a rectangle overlay on the head and a prompt to tag, suggesting probable matches.

At that point, I have to take a deep breath. This is like being inside science-fiction itself. We’re not talking about a high-end covert application, here. This is for you and me. Millions of you and me. And it’s brought to you by Google.

Which reminds me: when Gmail first came out, its very essence yielded much controversy; the fact that every single message you ever wrote or received would be stored online and search-able by Google’s sophisticated algorithms caused much concern about privacy. Then the storm passed, mostly because people liked Gmail more than they disliked the vulnerability it implied. It’s a sign of times. Our notion of personal privacy has to be – and is – changing because whether we like it or not, in a world ruled by information and communications, there can be no such thing as complete privacy. We just have to live with it. And better ourselves so that the fear of seeing our secrets exposed diminishes. In a sense, Google and the like are for modern society what the church was in the past: a strong motivation not to sin, or else.

Now let’s get back to Picasa, and let me be the devil’s advocate for a moment. Millions of users. Billions of portraits analyzed, tagged and associated with email addresses and further contact info... Need I say more? What an incredible database for Big Brother to tap into. Because let’s face it, criminals own cameras too. You rob a 7-Eleven, the security cameras record your face. Police can’t come up with a match, only being able to search through criminal records, official ID’s and whatever other sources they have. BUT. What if they could search the Picasa database???

Sure, I know, they can’t. Oh but wait a minute. The privacy policies of such online services as Google promise to protect yours, unless required by law or to assist enforcement of said law. Oops. Big Brother 1. Visitors 0.

Still. What a cool toy for those of us who will be geeks before being afraid.