August 27, 2010
The Shallows 5: Google’s Narrow Vision
Over a hundred years ago Frederick Winslow Taylor took a stopwatch to a steel plant in Philadelphia and changed the industrial world. By timing every step and movement in the process he came up with the one, most efficient way each worker should work. Productivity exploded, and manufacturers across the country eagerly adopted his methods. Taylor saw humans as extensions of the machine.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr contends that “Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters—the Googleplex—is the internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism” (p. 150). But at Google humans are extensions of a very particular kind of machine—the computer.
The folks at Google want us to surf as rapidly as possible on the Web. To make that happen they have carefully tested, analyzed, poked and prodded every part of every one of their Web pages. They want us to get to wherever we want to go as fast as possible. Out of the goodness of their hearts? Perhaps. Other factors, as Carr suggests, may be at play.
Google cofounder Larry Page has said he thinks of the human brain as a computer. Processing information as fast as possible is therefore the goal. So we are actually, according to his definition, better off for all these changes. In fact, if he could, he would have computers implanted in or supplementing our brains, becoming like Arthur C. Clarke’s artificial intelligence megacomputer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (without the bug, of course).
Once our thoughts, feelings, decisions, desires and dreams are fixed in zeros and ones, Taylor’s one best way to think is within our grasp. For Google, “ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed” (p. 173).
But what if the brain doesn’t operate like a computer? What if that is a poor, incomplete or defective analogy? What if we can’t imitate the brain’s processes in a sequence of discreet steps? What if Google is wrong that human thinking and human nature are merely mechanical?
Carr concludes his chapter with this:
Next Installment: The Shallows 6: Try to Remember