Out of beta: Google Press Day

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.

7 thoughts on “Out of beta: Google Press Day

  1. Phil

    The idea that willingness-to-learn will replace having-already-learnt as a desirable quality isn’t all that new. One of the more cult-like strands of modern Taylorism is actively dedicated to promoting flexibility and removing expertise (“no heroes”), because if employees aren’t interchangeable resources they can’t be swapped around at will. (Of course, what this means in practice is that expertise/heroism/doing one’s job well isn’t valued, whereas conforming to procedures is.)

    On the other hand, I’m struggling to see what this could possibly mean in the field of information – who would the ‘experts’, defined in terms of willingness-to-learn, learn from? It reminds me of the early-ish days of the Web, when it seemed as if there was a page on anything out there somewhere – whether you wanted a Star Trek episode guide, a Beck discography, a Wehrmacht order of battle or a discussion of blotter acid urban legends, you just had to go to Alta Vista and ask (if you had the requisite search fu, that is). How this scales up to the sum of human knowledge I’m not entirely sure, but I suppose that’s what the myth of Wikipedia is about.

  2. Sid Steward

    Your post recalls to mind something George Dyson wrote about their Google Library project:

    My visit to Google? … The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. ‘We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,’ explained one of my hosts after my talk. ‘We are scanning them to be read by an AI.’

    Dyson’s thoughtful piece includes this gem:

    Google is Turing’s cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope. In the words of an unusually perceptive friend: “When I was there, just before the IPO, I thought the coziness to be almost overwhelming. Happy Golden Retrievers running in slow motion through water sprinklers on the lawn. People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?”

    And ends by quoting the work of science fiction writer Simon Ings:

    “When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain.”

    My own $0.02 at the time related to the copyright issues of Google Library. Publishers and authors copyright books, but nobody can copyright facts (per the copyright law). So what if a machine gobbles up books and digests them into ‘facts’? Then there’s no need to compensate publishers or authors for their material.

  3. Rob Hyndman

    I think Google is conveniently conflating information and knowledge – perhaps lured by the promise of the idea that if information is free, knowledge must be cheap. There will without question be more room for the curious in the future, but knowledge will never be cheap, unless we’re all planning to work in hairnets in the not-too-distant future.

    Having the world’s information at my fingertips is a revelation, but when I want something done with it, please send me someone who already knows how to use it.

  4. Nick Carr

    Sid, Thanks. Dyson’s essay changed the way I think about Google and its machine dreams. I wrote about it here. Nick

  5. Allen Tan

    The efficacy and democratic nature of search could very well lead to a dearth of knowledge in certain areas. If you were an expert on a certain obscure subject that no one is interested in, would it matter to create and share that knowledge? Perhaps. (In a philosophical retake of the earlier statement, if a tree fell in Endau Rompin whilst you were in California, did it make a sound?)

    And perhaps decades later, someone will chance upon it via search. Fads apply to many forms of human activities and knowledge creation is certainly not immune to it. Maybe we will see tools like Google Zeitgeist growing to have an inordinate influence on the areas that knowledge creators wish to spend their precious time on.

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