Nothing much happened

“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.”

14 thoughts on “Nothing much happened

  1. Kelly Roberts

    Thanks for talking a little bit about class, Nick. The “democratization of data” Varian and his friends constantly trumpet is a sales pitch, the ultimate goal of which is to institutionalize Google’s trivial view of knowledge. Gadgets cost a lot of money, and the more we spend on them, the more money Google makes.

    And I guess I shouldn’t be reading this really interesting biography of Julius Caesar, since “nothing much happened” during the dude’s lifetime…

  2. Tom Lord


    So, there is a new technology of analysis: a new way to qualitatively and quantitatively measure the man. This is not unprecedented, it is just a new example of an old phenomenon.

    History teaches us that new “measures of man” are catalysts of abrupt, unanticipated change when they are also measures that are sensitive to intervention – to control – from more centralized points of power. (Not only from “more centralized” points of power/control but that’s what I’ll focus on here.)

    A cliche’d example to which I can’t do a historian’s justice, but which I’ll mention to illustrate the concept, is the invention of the “time study” in the context of the early 20th century industrial revolution.

    The technology of identifying the man by his time study scores, in the hands of Henry Ford, say, influenced the man’s built environment, his domestic environment, the pedagogy of his children, his understandings of what conditions of surveillance were normal to him, and so forth. Management of the man could, to a significant extent, be reduced to a formulaic application of rules triggered by time-study results. Every aspect of the man’s life thus permeated, the entire “formation of his self” shifted.

    Henry Ford was hardly eccentric. The theory of a scientific approach to population and labor management strongly informed fascism around the world. And notice how the fascist movement could define itself by rejecting historic value systems where they conflicted with the new truth – the new science – because the prevailing narrative was one that said this new “scientific” view of surveillance and control could yield a utopia. Most of us now know better. The old fascist science is laughable. Back then it was Truth and it was deployed and it changed everything because it was Truth.

    Another example might be to go back and look (as Foucault did) at the invention of the science of demographics and, consequently, population management. Why, for example, are contemporary politics in the U.S. so often constructed around the question of traditional family values and the problematics of the single parent as relates to sexual conduct? Surely, other analytical frameworks are possible for helping society wrestle with the objective facts of the situation but, for now, the science of measuring man by demographics dominates much of the discourse to such an extent that its implications once again justify laws, pedagogical practices, economic rules, and so forth. (Demographics goes a way back. Actuarial analysis of demographics, for example, was one of the hot new intellectual toys that Jefferson brought to bear in arguing for certain forms of copyright in the U.S.)

    Google is something new and frightening.

    Demographics: invented more or less by random response to local conditions.

    Time study: Some guy was tinkering around trying to come up with a new way to look at industrial production.

    Google: starting from a point of profound amounts of surveillance of the general population, Google systematically searches for new “measure of man” with a heavy emphasis on those measures which have a business use — which support centralized power intervening and controlling. Google is trying to mass produce discoveries like demographics and time studies.

    They can not help but to succeed, for better or worse. One example of worse that comes to mind is the influence they have had – in just a scant few years – towards the dismantling of libraries around the world.

    The quote you give, Nick — about researchers answering a question more quickly using Google — is the kind of argument put forward that leads to, quite literally, the dismantling of libraries and their replacement with computer terminals. The new “truth” is “time to answer”. The facts on the ground of how that changes power, pedagogy, the built environment, the robustness or lack thereof of society… all of these things are swept aside under that discourse about questions like “time to answer”. Google makes truth, whether it is factual or not.

  3. Yonathan Randolph

    The “nothing much happened until 1700” statement is not some radical doctrine from Google. It’s basically lecture 1 of Econ 101 at UC Berkeley, where Prof. Varian is from. For more info, read Prof. Brad DeLong’s essay on economic growth. The message: modern economic growth is awesome.

  4. James Cole

    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

    It’s not like Google only helps us to find out trivial things. And I don’t see how you can draw the conclusion that it *encourages* us to focus on trivial things.

    Google does make it easier to figure out many involved questions, because it makes it easier to find the bits and pieces required to synthesise an answer from.

  5. Fin James

    I tried to find the questions they used mostly because their distinction between ‘factual’ and ‘source’ were rather shaky. Factual was reasonably straight-forward, but the source questions were to be answered with “a list of sources that can help answer the question.”

    Which largely amounts to asking the factual question: Who has written about x?

    There doesn’t seem to be any evaluative component, which means you can boil the study down to: What is a faster way of searching a library index, physically, or with a computer. I didn’t need a study to guess which would be the quickest for that particular task.

    But I imagine if the study included evaluative questions, even simple ones, that required not only the retrieval of data but the organisation of it into cogent arguments, then the times would have been essentially the same.

    For example, I can quickly find the Wikipedia article on practically any topic, and it will give me a whole swathe of resources that’ll help me answer the question; but to actually answer the question, I have to read those references and evaluate them. In which case, if I was to restrict my search to the web or a library, it would purely be a case of how many references on a particular topic are available.

    Basically, I think they should redo that study, but with the classic essay questions of “Compare and contrast x.” or “Summarise the common critiques of x.”

  6. Tom Lord

    Case in point (re new measures of man and the reconstruction of the self):

    “A new study by a School of Information researcher finds that people are

    willing to put a lot of effort into maintaining a desirable public image

    of their music consumption. When information about music listening is

    published automatically, youth and young adults subtly manipulate the way

    they present themselves: rather than “cheating” digitally, they instead

    change the music they listen to.”

  7. Kevin Kelly

    >the rapidly growing divide in wealth

    A rapidly growing divide in wealth since 1700? I don’t think so. Source and evidence please. There may be a blip in one country in a few years, but over 300 years Hal is correct.

  8. Kevin Kelly

    That’s not what Hal was talking about.

    I would be curious to see what the graph looked like in other countries and other time periods.

    That might tell us whether this is a product of US politics, or US exceptionalism, or whether it is about modernization or urbanization or technologicization.

  9. Nick Carr

    I think it is what Hal was talking about. He was discussing the next 20 years, which I believe qualifies as an observation on contemporary trends.


    A couple of observations:

    Google is an ad agency, nothing more. They happened to stumble on internet search as the vehicle. That vehicle has crippled previous ad sources, notably newspapers and magazines. Google will not be replaced by another search vehicle, any more than the NY Times displaced other newspapers; they all prospered, more or less, symbiotically. No, Google will be replaced by some other ad vehicle which is more efficient to advertisers. There is no particular reason why that vehicle will be ‘net based. Likely not, in fact. Google will be just as sucker punched as the Times has been. Just as the Times couldn’t control the playing field created by Google, so Google will be hamstrung.

    Civilization, in the economic growth view, is just an embellishment of energy consumption (one could argue that ancient Greece or the Renaissance, based on intellectual progress in situ, was more civilized). The more energy squandered per capita, the higher the level of civilization; NOT. The steam engine was hardly the first case of civilization by this measure, nor the kink in the hockey stick; that distinction goes to petroleum.

    What petroleum added was portability, previous energy sources being far less so. It’s this portability which is also the Achilles heel of any society/economy which puts value there. Europe, having been devised long before petroleum, has shown itself to be more circumspect.

    Economic growth is “just” the increase in energy consumption per capita. However, this measure misses out on the distribution question. Since 1980, in the US, income/wealth distribution has skewed to about 3 times more concentration. In other words, that “modern economic growth is awesome” applies to a smaller fraction of the population each year. One way to look at it: the raw (natural) resources needed to supply a citizen with the previous generation’s notion of middle class (for example) grow in absolute terms, since that awesome growth moves the median and mean farther out the x axis. But such resources are limited, by definition (well, until Mr. Fusion power plants are cheap and plentiful). So, what we face is a simple problem: the sustainable “middle class” is, at best, fixed in absolute numbers, so that as population grows (the US is twice the size it was in the early 50s) the “middle class” remorselessly shrinks as a proportion of the society.

    Google has little to do with the economic growth problem.

  11. Trishasresearch

    The last ten years of my mother’s life, she had learned to use Google and she used it often. My mother loved to debate topics of politics, science and yes even pop-culture. Sometimes on occassion she was right and would win the argument, but sometimes she was wrong and I would have to go dig information in magazines or at libraries to prove my point. Google allowed my mother and me to settle our debates in a matter of minutes and it educated us. So while Google supplies answers to stupid questions like what Justin Beiber wore to his birthday party, it also taught my neice what temperature water turns ice and it taught my mother that she wasn’t always right.

  12. Webscaleguy

    Agree !

    Every age defines the benchmarks for its success.

    And, Material Wealth was clearly not the benchmark before 1700. In fact coming from the Eastern side of the world – The eastern civilizations like India had the pursuit of knowledge(defined by the brahmins) at the top of the pecking order.

    the Industrial Age really defined GDP as the benchmark.

    Is it about time when the benchmarks are about the change again.

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