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Brave New Google

August 14, 2010

In an interview published today in the Wall Street Journal, Google CEO Eric Schmidt lays out the next stage in his company's ambitious plan to replace human agency with automated data processing, freeing us all from the nuisance of thinking:

"We're trying to figure out what the future of search is," Mr. Schmidt acknowledges. "I mean that in a positive way. We're still happy to be in search, believe me. But one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type."

"I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions," he elaborates. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."

Let's say you're walking down the street. Because of the info Google has collected about you, "we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are." Google also knows, to within a foot, where you are. Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities: If you need milk and there's a place nearby to get milk, Google will remind you to get milk. It will tell you a store ahead has a collection of horse-racing posters, that a 19th-century murder you've been reading about took place on the next block.

Says Mr. Schmidt, a generation of powerful handheld devices is just around the corner that will be adept at surprising you with information that you didn't know you wanted to know. "The thing that makes newspapers so fundamentally fascinating—that serendipity—can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically," Mr. Schmidt says.

Awesome! I've always thought that the worst thing about serendipity was its randomness.

I hope Google will also be able to tell me the best candidate to vote for in elections. I find that such a burden.

Comments

> ... tell me the best candidate to vote for in elections.

Hmm? This is one of the most extensively researched topics in the US, and with data far beyond Google's nethead focus.

Quite seriously, the snark is misplaced - if you look at the stuff done with drawing political districts, the "personalization" efforts are amazing.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 14, 2010 03:22 PM

The less of Google I have in my life, the better off I'll feel.

I'll do my own thinking, thank you ...

Posted by: Dave Kosiur [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 14, 2010 04:22 PM

"The thing that makes food so fundamentally useful—that nutrition—can be synthesized now. We can actually produce it artificially," Mr. Schmidt says.

With a few substitutions, this is a press release for high-fructose corn syrup.

Posted by: Rob [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 14, 2010 05:07 PM

I quite enjoyed you on "Tech Nation" this morning and now I'm reveling in the the serendipity of stumbling across this piece as well.

It seems to me that most humans are readily willing to sacrifice their freedom for comfort & security. Isn't our love affair with technology and it's "solutions" just another manifestation of this?

Posted by: Bill Genereux [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 14, 2010 06:07 PM

Is not surprising that technology moves into the field of providing inner guidance. Since digital technology was born it always tried to simulate and substitute inner needs and qualities. Now is just more blatant.

Posted by: Ivo Quartiroli [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2010 01:47 AM

And it's a way of influence on global elections and policy.
Some counties will restrict Google proliferation, I suppose.

Posted by: Alexander Kupriyanov [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2010 04:16 AM

This reminded me of Jaron Lanier's recent op-ed in the NYT, "The First Church of Robotics." Check it out if you haven't already:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09lanier.html

Posted by: Kelly Roberts [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2010 03:10 PM

Nick, we'd like to invite you to speak to the cisco.com staff at Cisco in Sept. On the issue of internet privacy. Can you please contact Celia Sanchez at Cisco re your availability? Or email me at mimetz@cisco.com.
Thanks, Michael Metz

Posted by: mimetz [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 16, 2010 05:48 AM

"I hope Google will also be able to tell me the best candidate to vote for in elections. I find that such a burden."

A political scientist would say the joke is on you: most Americans' voting behavior is a reliable function of previous partisan voting record, demographics, and the recent direction of broad economic trends. See Nate Silver's work at fivethirtyeight.com (and the political science research on which he draws).

Posted by: Sam Penrose [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2010 11:53 AM

I'm seeing ten or twenty years from now, when the majority of the population is filled with digital natives who have relied on Google, crowdsourcing, Yelp, etc. since age three more than they use their heads to find answers. One of them steps into a voting booth, an augmented reality Google indicator pops up over the circles to fill, and guides them through the process of using this alien device known as a pencil. It then directs them out the door and to the nearest Best Buy for Grand Theft Auto XII.

Posted by: Wintermute [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2010 02:02 PM

> ... tell me the best candidate to vote for in elections.

Why vote at all if you can easily click on the "like"-Button and continue shopping? My (social) friends recommendation is another way to prevent own thinking.

Easy new world.

Posted by: Ingo Stoll [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 19, 2010 12:00 AM

Not to crash anyones strawman party here, but the world wide web, clearly not just google (but they index it) brought me to this site.

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/

Which perhaps can and should affect how people vote for local politicians here in the UK.
I see better information than was reasonably available before when compared to the mostly awful press/news media.

Clearly it's not always the case that long form reading is better than direct factual information. I see value in my local candidates voting records, graphs/charts of relevant stats and scientific data/papers marked up in such a way as to be easy for a user agent to cross reference.

As Doug Englebart may have said "If we don't get collectively smarter, we're doomed."

Whilst interesting points can be made on the effects of distraction and computer mediated information. I'm yet to be convinced that the old guard of media companies haven't been found seriously wanting in the sphere of unbiased political information.

Posted by: Stewart Dinnage [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 19, 2010 05:31 PM

I don't think anyone will argue that we don't *technically* have access to better information with the advent of the internet, compared to the "old press/news media". Sure, dogs were wagged, wars were waged for illegitimate reasons, people were lied to by politicians, the media was often one-sided, biased, sensationalist, and not very informative. Now we can Google up politicians' records. Great. Awesome. Go internet.

But all that is orthogonal to Carr's central arguments, namely that the internet is changing us, in ways we can't even know yet, and some of these changes could have scary unintended consequences.

What happens to kids who grow up in a world where they don't ever need to use their sense of direction (Google guides them along on a leash to school, home, the mall, everywhere), are continuously reminded and instructed when they need to "pick up milk", are told what music and books and movies they like, are given instantaneously the answers to anything they might be thinking about? Will these future registered voters even bother looking at facts and data on politicians when they've come to rely on the ever-present answer machine? What happens to all the mental work, the thought processes in between that we immigrants to the digital world learned in the analog that these digital native kids might never learn?

The answer is we really don't know, but it's a little scary to think about.

Posted by: Wintermute [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 01:59 AM

Soon Google will end up with Google Chip which will give direct instructions and emotions for our brains.
This will lead us not having to rely on our pre-historic brains, architected by the ridiculously random and incomplete evolution.
Does striving for survival, and breeding maximize human happiness, with more probability than the Google Chip? I say No. Absolutely not. With Google Chip I am waiting to feel kind of an enlightenment, free of the burden of the past, really enjoying the peace and happiness.
Google vs Evolution - as ridiculous as it sounds I choose Google.

Posted by: tomi h [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 03:49 AM

"But all that is orthogonal to Carr's central arguments"

That may be so, however I thought I was responding to a blog post, not the central premise of The Shallows. Whilst we are on that, your statement:

"namely that the internet is changing us, in ways we can't even know yet, and some of these changes could have scary unintended consequences."
1. As Carr points out such a statement could also be directly applied to the written word, television, radio and any other technology mediated communication.

2.
A) Doesn't fully represent either the premise of the book, as Carr himself doesn't offer a snappy summary in what I have read so far (however the book is on order at my library so I base this on the blog and wired article and others).
B) Or a coherent hypothesis that may be in some useful way observable/repeatable.

Your later comments are interesting and whilst what you describe could cause issues, you are describing a potential outcome of a potential future web/internet/answer engine.

IMHO such a future should and would include an increased amount of Semantic Data as outlined by the W3Cs Semantic Web efforts. In theory this could augment the human capacity to process simple comparisons of products and services for example, by using rules and inference to make logical choices on large datasets and as the standard is open, the user could (when not time limited) review the logic to understand the recommendation.
Currently I have no data on the provenance and/or means of production of my milk or virtually any other product I buy for that matter, do I think that machine enhanced processing of such data could improve competition, I'd say yes. I think Joseph Schumpter suggested perfect competition would follow on from perfect information. Now I'm not suggesting some utopian future, just that as with theyworkforyou.com machine processable data on products could improve the way the large companies we buy products from compete with each other and perhaps even allow new entrants who align better with individuals understanding of best practice.

P.S. The terms digital natives/immigrants are often used in a confusing and unproductive fashion. I'm inclined to agree with Bennett, S. Maton, K. Kervin, L.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x/abstract
"We argue that rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a ‘moral panic’."

Posted by: Stewart Dinnage [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 04:01 AM

"That may be so, however I thought I was responding to a blog post, not the central premise of The Shallows."

I was not referring to the central premise of The Shallows necessarily, but rather this blog post in particular in the context of Carr's recent work.

"'namely that the internet is changing us, in ways we can't even know yet, and some of these changes could have scary unintended consequences.'

1. As Carr points out such a statement could also be directly applied to the written word, television, radio and any other technology mediated communication."

Carr gives some fairly specific examples based on neurological scientific research of how exactly the internet is affecting our apparently highly neuroplastic brains, if you bother to read the book. These examples also come up often in interviews with Carr and in press releases. In this particular situation, he is implying with his "let Google vote for me" riff that this *future* direction that Google is considering pioneering where Google is constantly "telling you what you should be doing next" could have additional adverse effects, effects we can't know yet because the technology is not yet implemented.

"A) Doesn't fully represent either the premise of the book, as Carr himself doesn't offer a snappy summary in what I have read so far."

First blurb off The Shallows listing on Amazon:

"Here he looks to neurological science to gauge the organic impact of computers, citing fascinating experiments that contrast the neural pathways built by reading books versus those forged by surfing the hypnotic Internet, where portals lead us on from one text, image, or video to another while we’re being bombarded by messages, alerts, and feeds. This glimmering realm of interruption and distraction impedes the sort of comprehension and retention “deep reading” engenders, Carr explains. And not only are we reconfiguring our brains, we are also forging a “new intellectual ethic,” an arresting observation Carr expands on while discussing Google’s gargantuan book digitization project."

http://www.amazon.com/Shallows-What-Internet-Doing-Brains/dp/0393072223

"B) Or a coherent hypothesis that may be in some useful way observable/repeatable."

Not at present. Give it a few years.


"The terms digital natives/immigrants are often used in a confusing and unproductive fashion."

I didn't mean to bring in unnecessary academia baggage, and I'm sorry they've managed to load such useful terms with 'moral panic'. I'm merely highlighting the fact that kids growing up now are growing up with the ubiquitous internet, whereas previous generations have not, and we cannot know the full scope of the effects based on these previous generations.

Posted by: Wintermute [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 05:14 AM

"In theory this could augment the human capacity to process simple comparisons of products and services for example, by using rules and inference to make logical choices on large datasets and as the standard is open, the user could (when not time limited) review the logic to understand the recommendation. "

In theory. I agree that this could increase the quality and ease of access to information and cognitive load necessary for making decisions on products, which is a good thing.

In practice, though, how often will the average user review the recommendation programming? Why should Google or any other business make it easy for you to review the recommendation programming? Google's current business model is essentially a recommendation auction that recommends the highest bidder to users. In theory, the average non-technical Facebook user has total control over the privacy levels of their data. In practice...

Posted by: Wintermute [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 05:45 AM

I'm not defending Eric Schmidt's statements and/or Google's supposed future business practices. Indeed as a user I'd totally dispute the following:
"They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."
Recommendations and instructions are clearly different things.

However when Carr states "I hope Google will also be able to tell me the best candidate to vote for in elections. I find that such a burden."

It reads to my eyes, like the epitome of "A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position." Wikipedia

"Carr gives some fairly specific examples based on neurological scientific research of how exactly the internet is affecting our apparently highly neuroplastic brains, if you bother to read the book."

The scientific studies Carr references that I'm aware of (mostly via the wired article) on occasion considered techniques or applications associated with the Internet such as Hypertext/WWW or email, sometimes looking broadly at multimedia and on occasion distraction and multi-tasking. Whilst all technological issues I'm not sure they add up to "Google" or the "Internet". I'm also not convinced they show that neuroscience supports Nicks position as I have thus far read it.

http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/06/the_shallows.php


Regarding the studies of reading hypertext which I'm very interested in, I would also like to see a comparative study of people reading classical versus scientific literature (The computerisation of which was part of CERN/Tim Berners Lee's reason for developing the WWW). Science literature is also typically full of citations/footnotes and is often delivered in shorter form than the full books we all know and love. Does Science literature rewire our Brains? Could there be unintended consiquences of reading journal articles?

Those are interesting points on business practices on the current/future web, you seem to suggest user agents of the future (recommendation engines) will not be as well served by commercially biased organisations. I'm not sure how this differs from today (Chrome/FireFox user here). IMHO some infrastructure (especially regarding information and communications) may work better without capitalistic interests. No one makes profit out of our use of specific languages/Mathematics for example. Monetary systems are seemingly better controlled by government/central banks than by free markets. Regardless of user agent software being free and open or proprietary and for profit, like any Maths teacher, I'd like to see and amend the working out of any calculations, that should be a major selling point of any such system.

Posted by: Stewart Dinnage [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 08:16 AM

"Whilst all technological issues I'm not sure they add up to "Google" or the "Internet"."

Certainly the internet is not jumping into our brains and rewiring our circuitry like a malicious hobgoblin. Carr is careful to point out that the internet has great benefits and it's not the internet itself but the way in which we as individuals use it that affects us and reinforces or de-emphasizes certain types of mental activity. In theory we are all able to tune out all distractions, put the computer or iPhone down regularly, and balance our deep reading and quick skimming, if we so choose. In reality not everyone actually does this.

"you seem to suggest user agents of the future (recommendation engines) will not be as well served by commercially biased organisations. I'm not sure how this differs from today (Chrome/FireFox user here)."


I wouldn't disagree with that, although that seems a fairly trivial point, and not what I was getting at. You focused on the rosy aspects of potential future recommendation engines, such as easier, better informed consumer choices, and increased and 'more perfect' competition. Which are good points that I agree with, in theory. However, recommendation engines giveth, and recommendation engines taketh away, like any other technology, and I was merely playing the skeptic and suggesting some of the potential problems with our bright future filled with near-Homo Economicuses. And it's not just the conflicts of interest of businesses that run recommendation engines, but the question of what kind of future minds will be created by a world in which the 'net/cloud not only passively answers all our questions, but *actively* suggests to (or tells) us what to do on a near-eternal basis. (Mobile internet is trending towards overtaking fixed internet)

"IMHO some infrastructure (especially regarding information and communications) may work better without capitalistic interests."

Completely agreed. Let me know when the government manages to get Google/Verizon to hand over the keys to the post-net neutrality kingdom. Also, let me know when the government manages to get its autonomy handed back over from those pesky capitalists pulling its strings over on Wall Street and every other major industry.

Posted by: Wintermute [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 02:44 PM

While you joke about voting, without assistance individual voters are at a serious disadvantage compared to all the interest groups arrayed against them.

We're working on our own voter resource for American voters:

http://votereports.org/

In the end, we really should be able to cast an informed vote without having to spend tedious hours researching our reps' votes.

Posted by: Ben Woosley [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 20, 2010 05:55 PM


· Go to Carr’s blog at http://www.roughtype.com/ and find one of his posts that sparks your interest.
· Read the comments on the post in which readers agree or disagree with Carr’s viewpoint.
· Respond to ONE of Carr’s posts in a couple of paragraphs using the Comment feature. Disagree or partly disagree with something Carr wrote. Support your opinion by bringing in a credible source that corroborates your viewpoint.
· Go to Discussion Forum 3 and summarize the post (include the date and title of the post you chose) in one paragraph. Then copy and paste the comment you wrote to Carr.

I reviewed: http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2010/08/brave_new_googl.php

My comment is as follows:

The sarcasm that ends this article is just that sarcasm. Google is not necessarily going to tell you who to vote for, but rather that if you were to search presidential candidates, it would pull up the most searched. The fill-in-the-blanks way that Google searches for things is the "serendipity" that Schmidt was regarding. It will bring up several choices even if you start with a few words such as "what if..." It will give you choices.
By collecting your information, and using your ip address, Google is trying to make things more relevant when you search to things in your area.
Here's the interesting part: Google versus other companies analyzing traffic and data. Almost 50%.
http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/traffic_analysis/all

That is where you want to ask yourself where and what, and why. Where is this information going, what is it being used for, and why are they collecting it.

While Google takes the time to collect everything to "make ones life easier" by putting information right at our fingertips, it's our responsibility to get away from the technology if it's starting to take over our lives. Yes, Google can tell us that the block we're passing is relevant to a book we're reading. The choice still lands on you the individual on what search engine you want to use, what e-mail you choose to use. What kind of smart phone, etc.

Posted by: Matthew Sanvidge [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 11, 2011 07:26 PM

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