IVP - Andy Unedited - The Shallows 5: Google’s Narrow Vision

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.

The faster we surf across the surface of a Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements…Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction…Google wants information to be free because, as the cost of information falls, we all spend more time looking at computer screens and the company’s profits go up. (pp. 156-57, 160)

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:

Google is neither God nor Satan, and if there are shadows in the Googleplex they’re no more than the delusions of grandeur. What’s disturbing about the company’s founders is not their boyish desire to create an amazingly cool machine that will be able to outthink its creators, but the pinched conception of the human mind that gives rise to such a desire.

Next Installment: The Shallows 6: Try to Remember

Posted by Andy Le Peau at August 27, 2010 7:59 AM Bookmark and Share


Bear in mind that Google's core business is a search engine.

From a business perspective you could say advertising, because that's where the money comes from, but you'd be missing the point. Advertising is only profitable if people are viewing it. What brings viewers to Google? Mostly the search engine. That's their key service.

People don't go to Google to spend an hour reading search results. There's something else they want to be spending their time reading. Google's job is just to get them there.

So yeah, of course Google is streamlined. That's what gives them a competitive advantage over Yahoo (which is bogged down in a metric ton of superfluous clutter). Yahoo *used* to be the big popular search engine. Google ate their lunch because people *like* Google. People like Google because Google gets them where they want to be -- off the search engine and on to the content they were actually looking for, which was the whole reason they went to the search engine in the first place.

Comment by: Jonadab the Unsightly One at August 31, 2010 6:26 AM

You are right that Google is very good at what it does, providing people what they want the way they want it. And I use it everyday myself--many times a day. It's incredibly useful and handy. It provides tremendous advantages. But, as Carr suggests, there are downsides that go along with these. It's good to be aware of them.

Comment by: Andy Le Peau at August 31, 2010 8:59 AM

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