“If you look at the history of the world, up until 1700 nothing much happened.” That’s what Karl Marx said to Friedrich Engels when the two first met, at a cafe in Paris, in 1844. No, I’m kidding. The guy who actually spoke those words is Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, and he spoke them just a few days ago. What roused history from its millennia-long stupor – what finally made things happen – was, in Varian’s view, the steam engine, the technology that jump-started “the wonderful Industrial Revolution,” which in turn began to lift “GDP growth per capita.” History, in the Googley view, isn’t about what people do; it’s about what they output with the help of machines. Before 1700 you could see history everywhere except in the productivity statistics.
The Google folks are Marxists in their historical materialism, but they seem blind to class-related phenomena such as the rapidly growing divide in wealth. Theirs is a happy, trickle-down world. “What rich people have now,” Varian says, “middle class people will have in twenty years.” What’s he talking about? Private jets? Ranches in Montana? Income growth?
What the steam engine did for industrial output, Varian implies, the Google search engine is doing for intellectual output:
There’s a recent study out of the University of Michigan, where they had a team of students find answers to a set of questions using materials in the campus library. Then another team had to answer the same set of questions using Google. It took them 7 minutes to answer the questions on Google and 22 minutes to answer them in the library. Think about all the time saved! Thirty years ago, getting answers was really expensive, so we asked very few questions. Now getting answers is cheap, so we ask billions of questions a day, like “what is Jennifer Aniston having for breakfast?” We would have never asked that 30 years ago.
Lord knows it’s great that we can answer well-defined questions a lot more quickly today than we could 20 years ago, and that that allows us to ask more, and more-trivial, questions in the course of a day than we could before, but Varian’s desire to apply measures of productivity to the life of the mind also testifies to the narrowness of Google’s view. It values the measurable over the nonmeasurable, and what it values most of all are those measurable variables that are increasing thanks to recent technological advances. In other words, it stacks history’s deck. How did the University of Michigan researchers come up with the questions that they had their subjects find answers to? They “obtained a random sample of 2515 queries from a major search engine.” Ha!
Maybe the question we should be asking, not of Google but of ourselves, is what types of questions the Net is encouraging us to ask. Should human thought be gauged by its output or by its quality? That question might actually propel one into the musty depths of a library, where “time saved” is not always the primary concern.
A few years after Marx kicked the bucket, Engels observed, “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it.” But it was Shakespeare, in one of those empty years before 1700, who made the point more eloquently when he had Hamlet say, to his university buddy, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”