The mainstream and nonmainstream media broke artisanal bread together yesterday at the annual Google Press Day. I, being a member of the post-nonmainstream media, didn’t make the trek to the Googleplex, but I did live the day vicariously through the video feed. Google announced some new products – knockoffs and tweaks, mainly, along with something possibly interesting called either Google Co-op or Google Co-opt (I’m not quite sure) – but the real news was the event itself. Google Press Day has officially emerged from beta. It’s mature, it’s perfected, and it has five nines of reliability. Seemingly scripted by an algorithm, the powwow proceeded without a hitch, as a rainbow of irony-challenged smiley faces made nice-sounding noises about Google’s search-centricity, user-driven innovativeness, cultural sensitivity and general monetizable goodness – and the press relayed it all to the world.
Actually, there was one little glitch. It came at the end when founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were rolled out, along with, revealingly, a lawyer, for an “executive Q&A.” Some French wiseguy asked whether Google wasn’t being a bit of a hypocrite in attacking Microsoft for adding a search box to its browser, and Brin got all shirty. Displaying a very unGoogley surliness (anger, like irony, is banned in the ‘Plex), he snapped, “We just certainly see the history with that particular company, Microsoft, behaving anti-competitively, being a convicted monopoly and not necessarily playing fair in other situations – like Netscape and whatnot – so I think we want to focus early on and make sure that we at least are looking at the areas where perhaps power can be abused.” It harshed the buzz for a moment, but Brin calmed down quickly and was soon praising Google (and himself) for being non-evil and generally making the world a nicer place. As for Page, he was supernaturely even-keeled. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether I was watching Larry Page or Larry Page’s avatar. Is there a difference? Maybe Page exited the first life a while back and now exists entirely in the second life.
But let’s back up to the beginning, because the opening act – CEO Eric Schmidt’s talk – was the most interesting part of the show. Schmidt spoke very slowly, in an upbeat monotone, like a vaguely blissed-out Robot Dad. It was the kind of embalming performance that makes you nod your head to everything a speaker says without actually hearing anything he says. But I downed a couple of cups of coffee, slapped myself in the face and went back and watched it a second time. It was, at moments, a fascinating speech. Schmidt gave a good explanation of why the nature of computing is changing, and why network computing is possible today in a way it wasn’t ten years ago. He kind of suggested that Google is shifting from an engineering-driven to a business-driven organization. And he made a plea for the development of “effective” (by which I think he means “pro-Google”) internet standards and regulations.
Then he suddenly got philosophical:
I’m convinced the impact of information on users, and users on information, is changing the way people think about information … It’s possible that because of the success of search and these wiki type structures and so forth that experts and particularly expertise will transition in our lifetime from learned information to learning information. And curiosity will be how you establish your expertise. This is a big shift, for the learning and information structures of our world.
I don’t know precisely what he’s talking about here – and I’m not sure he does either – but it always makes me nervous to hear a technologist, particularly a powerful one, talking expansively about the future of human cognition or human nature. I think what Schmidt’s suggesting is that Google’s values will inexorably become society’s values, as search trumps understanding and seeking trumps thinking. It will truly be a Google Earth, crawling with billions of little search automatons mediating an infinite loop of content production and consumption. Or something like that. The company’s greatest product, or at least the one he’s “always wanted to build,” said Schmidt, will be something called “Serendipity,” which “tell[s] me what I should be typing.” Good Lord. I truly hope that’s just the Kool-Aid talking.