Tag Archives: google

In Reality, Googling

Q&A With Google’s Eric Schmidt

The line of audience members queuing up for their turn to throw a question at Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, seemed oddly like an inefficient search engine. There were so many things un-Googley about it, like having to wait for someone else to finish before I could ask a question, and having to get up out of my seat to get in line.

Otherwise, the hour that Schmidt spent discussing his latest book “The New Digital Age,” with co-author Jared Cohen, covered much ground and put a human face on a company that often seems much more robotic than peopled.

The book was just released in paperback and plastered with glowing reviews from statesmen including Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and the like. In it, the authors Cohen and Schmidt attempt to map out a future which they label as humanity’s greatest experiment to date with ‘anarchy’ – the internet.

The forum at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington was largely open to audience participation and effectively managed by a moderator who was prone to poking fun at the speakers – he claimed, ‘No matter how many billions of dollars he has, Eric is still a dork,’ after a story about Schmidt’s peculiar interest in flak-jackets was told.

Eric Schmidt of Google speaking to an audience

Google’s Eric Schmidt

Topics from gender equality in the workplace, the role of technology in societies at war, and the responsibilities of parents in the realm of online privacy were all touched on. Hard working women were given ample credit for helping Google achieve the success it has, and Schmidt, when asked how the public sector might follow the same course, responded by saying, simply – ‘Promote them!’

He circled around several points of praise for promoting women in the workplace, but coming up short on actual advice for the public sector, retreated to saying ‘The fact that there’s a conversation about this right now is a start.’

Your Query Returned 400,000 Vague Results

It wasn’t the only topic which would prompt the ‘…it’s good to talk about…’ refrain. Inevitably, the conversation turned to government surveillance. Schmidt began to outline the international reactions to the idea, saying that if you ask a citizen in Germany about government internet snooping, you’ll get a totally different answer than you would if a citizen in Britain, or the United States gave their opinion. ‘The fact that we’re having this conversation is a start,’ he said again.

Its a reasonable answer, and that this discourse is taking place so amicably between citizens and government is fantastic, but Schmidt’s story of ‘to each their own’ fell short of making a real statement.

“Beware the myth of the single omnipotent decision maker,’ Schmidt related when asked about his philosophy on leadership. He went on to describe a room full of people, sitting around a table and shooting down each other’s ideas as the most effective way to come to a solution, lambasting the idea of a heroic individual effort in coming to profound conclusions. His regard for collaborative decision making might explain his reticence on American leadership in the debate about government snooping – perhaps its better to wait and see what everyone else thinks, too.

Cohen, a younger Google employee and the leader of the ‘Google Ideas’ branch of the company, took over when an audience member began to inquire about online privacy. ‘Its the parent’s responsibility,’ he began, ‘to talk about privacy before they even discuss the birds & the bees’ with their children. I felt like this was a punt, and much the same kind of argument that pro-gun advocates make when claiming that it’s the shooters who are to blame in a killing and not the guns.

One of the final questions of the session was the most interesting – a man asked if in this age of information inundation, whether tools like Google are doing anything to help filter the signal from the noise, or if they are actually making it harder to sift through unnecessary information – and again, from Cohen, a punt: ‘It’s a human problem, not a technology one.’

on Efficiency, Depression, Happiness, and Beer

The Google Ngram viewer charts the incidence of terms in 5.2 million books dating back centuries. It’s a pretty amazing tool.

Choosing the words ‘efficiency‘ and ‘depression‘ I graphed their usage over the last 500 years. I found a close correlation between the terms, with both beginning to rise around 1750 and sharply peaking around 1925. As a control variable I also included ‘weather’, which showed little correlation to either efficiency or depression. Something to think about as we continue to make ourselves faster, better, and stronger!


To avoid being too much of a downer on a Friday, I want to also include my findings on the relationship between happiness and beer. If this doesn’t demonstrate true progress, I don’t know what will – we’ve almost reached equilibrium!

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 11.12.36 AM

I don’t expect to break any ground with these findings, I just wanted to share what is a very fun set of data to play around with. For more nuanced and careful analysis, see the book ‘Uncharted – Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture‘ by Aiden and Michel.

the Fictionalizations of ‘the Google’

I had a colleague a few years ago who joked about how his aging parents always referred to Google, the search engine, as “the Google,” as if the internet giant had become an entity of such massive, generic proportion that it deserved its own “the..”, like “the city,” or “the ocean,” or “the internet.” The Google.

Popular culture has been producing fictionalized narratives about what life at Google might be like, to complement the hordes of reportage documenting the reality of the company. For an account of how it came to be, and an outsider’s view of the founders, Ken Auletta’s non-fiction book “Googled” tells a fascinating story.

But the real story of Google is about the people who work there, and what they are trying to accomplish. There are plenty of imaginary guesses as to what that’s like – in ‘The Internship,’ actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn actually have the blessing of Google’s marketing department to use the company’s real logo, and refer to it by name, in their imaginary take on what it’s like to work for the massive company.

The American author Dave Eggers has recently published “The Circle,” his take on life at Google, (or maybe some combination of Google and Facebook) and how the company is changing the world, but without the happy rainbows and moon-glow sheen of the Wilson/Vaughn film.

Of the two accounts, is one more accurate than the other? I would need first hand experience to answer that with any authority. My best guess is that Eggers is reaching closer to Google’s heart than Vaughn and Wilson.

At Eggers’s Google (He calls it ‘the Circle’) the campus glistens and sprawls, the office parties are legendary, and the ‘Circlers’ on staff are all brilliant, young intellectual heavyweights. But eventually, the villianization of privacy becomes overwhelming, the expectations of world-saving become untenable, and the marriage of life and work becomes suffocating.

Eggers’ Google follows these guiding principles, echoing Orwell’s Big Brother:


The Circle has incredible ambition – an imaginative product called ‘TruYou,’ which is your real identity, everywhere online; ‘SeeChange,’ a YouTube-like network of tiny cameras placed everywhere in the world, broadcasting everything to satisfy anyone’s curiosity; and ‘Transparency‘, which puts the cameras on individual persons, worn as a necklace, making their every movement a publicly broadcasted act. Numerous other realistic inventions are sprinkled throughout the story, introduced as positive societal game-changers, but simmering beneath the surface with totalitarian terror.

As Eggers’ describes these fictional innovations, without diving into technological reality, they actually seem very close to the realm of possibility – or at least near to the trajectory we can expect to see over the next few decades.

The story follows the path of Mae, an ambitious young woman drawn to the company by its promise of involvement, optimism and excellence. The journey she takes is one that moves from initial bewilderment at The Circle to a creeping acceptance and incapacitating servitude, while she alienates and betrays every real relationship in her life along the way.

The ugly consequences of The Circle’s mission to publicize everything are highlighted by the revulsion felt by Mae’s ex-boyfriend, who chastises her:

 “Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall… It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.” 

At Vaughn and Wilson’s Google, in “The Internship,” the company is nothing more than a place for two aging slackers to take a second shot at being financially responsible adults, who are capable of earning a living to support themselves – it just so happens this place is also Google, where everyone who wears the logo must be disruptively smart and attractive.

‘The Internship’ doesn’t touch on a single thing that Google actually does, or how their real products and technology are used by the world, until a thrown together final scene which vaguely hints that Google can help a small pizza shop – yet this is the fictionalization that the corporation gave a real blessing to, with ample permission to display their bright and shiny logo in nearly every scene, from the extensive coverage of the ‘nap stations’ on campus, and the ample free food and snacks, to the team-building trips at San Francisco strip clubs.

The British film critic Mark Kermode described The Internship as “one of the most witless, humourless, vomit-inducingly horribly self-satisfied, smug, unfunny comedies I have ever seen.”

So which of these representations is the real Google? Hmm, I don’t know…. Maybe you can Google it.

When I was a kid, I remember having playful arguments with friends during our imaginative games that were settled by how many multiples of a number we were better than one another – ‘I’m a million times taller’ or ‘I’m ten million times faster!’

One day, in a conversation with my Dad, he explained the number ‘googol,’ and I felt like a huge cloak had been lifted from the possibilities of the universe. It was the biggest number ever! In my imagination, I could be GOOGOL times faster!

So now, along with all the other cosmic and intricate coincidences that fill up my life, I’m an adult, and Google is still the easiest way to end an argument.