The metabolic thing

The Washington Post today has an expose on the restrooms in Google’s headquarters: “Every bathroom stall on the company campus holds a Japanese high-tech commode with a heated seat. If a flush is not enough, a wireless button on the door activates a bidet and drying.” Tacked up beside that button on the stall door is a piece of paper that “features a geek quiz that changes every few weeks and asks technical questions about testing programming code for bugs.”

I’m reminded, for some reason, of what Danny Hillis, the parallel-processing pioneer whose work paved the way for Google’s computer system, said about mankind: “We’re the metabolic thing, which is the monkey that walks around, and we’re the intelligent thing, which is a set of ideas and culture. And those two things have coevolved together, because they helped each other. But they’re fundamentally different things. What’s valuable about us, what’s good about humans, is the idea thing. It’s not the animal thing.”

A few years back, when Google’s founders still felt free to express their true ambitions, Sergey Brin said to Newsweek, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off. Between that and today, there’s plenty of space to cover.” And, certainly, if you had an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d no longer need the monkey that walks around.

Those Japanese commodes are nice, but it’s important to remember that they’re merely transitional devices. We’ll know that Google has truly fulfilled its vision when the Googleplex no longer needs toilets at all.

6 thoughts on “The metabolic thing

  1. David

    Nicholas, what’s the source of the quotation from Danny Hillis? I know I’ve read it before on your weblog (November 2005) and I’d love to track it down. Is it also from the book by David Noble (see November post)? Thanks.

  2. Graham Hill


    Sounds like Hillis has delusions of geek grandeur to me.

    Neurobiologists like Antonio Damasio have shown unequivocally that we humans are really awful at making decisions without a big dose of emtional processing (mostly non-conscious) to help us out. He also reminds us that we are a very long way from really understanding why that is.

    Strip out the emotional man from the Spock-like ideas and the results are likely to be logically consistent but awful never-the-less.

    Keep up the good work.

    Graham Hill

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Here I go again, bemoaning the lack of a home for technology-positive social criticism.

    Can’t what Danny Hillis said be loosely translated that there’s mind-body duality, and our essence is mind, not body?

    And so, _pace_ Sergey Brin, someday the Mind might somehow transcend the Body.

    Is this wrong? Perhaps I’m misreading you, but I get the impression that you believe that to speak of this even in the most speculative and philosophical sense, is to mark oneself as apart from proper humanistic society. Again, maybe I’m misreading it, but I see a subtext akin to the attacks on evolution, where the creationist decry the scientists for saying we are like other animals, rather than the image of God.

  4. Nick Carr


    Yes, it’s from David Noble’s The Religion of Technology, pp. 162-163. The original source is a 1992 article by Steven Levy, “A-Life Nightmare,” that appeared in Whole Earth Review. Levy, semi-coincidentally, also wrote the Newsweek article that I drew the Brin quote from.


  5. Douglas Mitchell

    Let’s remove the sigmoidoscope targeted on Google’s ceramics lab for a moment…and examine the bigger implications. What you are seeing here (and what previous commenters are completely missing from being too cerebral) is a glimpse into the secret to GOOG’s success. Stand back and let this diamond of clarity emerge from your dilating…eyes.

    Google’s founders have discovered what I did years ago (I have 2 of these lovely machines in the house now)…that a sparkly clean and healthful posterior cleanses one’s mind and fires synapses that hitherto may have been dormant, disconnected, or misaligned.

    No wonder Mark Cuban funded Brondell the fantastic bidet toilet seat company that is poised to conquer the market here in the U.S. Brilliant!

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