Category Archives: Opinion

God Damn It, Google

You disappoint me.

A couple years ago, I wrote a post called Google, Rome, and Empire. The gist of the article, of which I was very proud at the time, was that Google’s grand plan mirrored the structure of Roman roads in their build-out period, and that Google would unify its dozens of small properties with its five or six big ones by means of a single meta-service.

I envisioned this rich tapestry of services, obscure to monolithic, hooking in through engines and tools to a vastness of data and users, and, at the other end of the telescope, a single point of entry through which one would have instant access to everything from maps to obscure scientific results to the current price of tea. A bit like the real (or rather, idealized) empire, really: An assemblage of hamlets and metropoli, farms and academies, every citizen knowing that their via vicinale led to a via rustica, which led to a via publica, which led to Rome.

This constellation of services, this web of empowerment, resources, and variety. This bright future.

I’m feeling let down.

I’d like to think that I was at least not wrong the whole time. I think my optimism was warranted, just as I think their ambition was real. In a way, that ambition is intact. But it has been perverted. Google was like the Library of Babel: As near as infinite as the Internet age was likely to get. This mind-blowing edifice, bricks of information, mortared together with context, and gilded with accessibility. And they’re building it all so you’ll go to the gift shop.

I suppose I’m criticizing them for deciding to become a business rather than a public service. That was their choice to make, of course, but I think it’s safe to say their choice was a poor one. The Google of the early 2000s, globe-spanning and yet delighting in esoterica, was on its way to becoming a historic framework, Standard Oil crossed with Bell Labs. Not only that, it was crazy, starry-eyed: It was an asylum by and for the lunatics, a padded room big enough to hold the world.

What was it about being the connective tissue of the net that became so distasteful to Google? What was it that made them shutter project after project, things that could have lived out their natural lives for years on minimal resources, supported by a thankful and loving community in happy allegiance to the Google Empire?

Google+ was, as I saw it, a huge misstep, albeit a high-quality one. But other products, other “sunsets” (each less scenic than the last) hinted at a company growing not just sloppy, but callous. More wood behind fewer arrows, when the whole point of Google was that its quiver runneth over. Now, with the senseless shutdown of Reader (I won’t bore you with my own analysis; there’s plenty already (but take this)), I’m faced with how deliberate and tawdry the whole thing has become. God damn it, Google.

It’s not that we can’t move on from Reader — maybe its demise will even help with the rebirth of RSS, or whatever comes next, and make us really look at how ideas move around the Internet. And it’s not that I hate Google+, although I sure as hell don’t have to like it, either.

It’s like seeing your favorite fighter (I was going to say Ali, but Google doesn’t deserve him, even in simile) throw a match for the money. He’s no worse a fighter for it, but could you ever cheer for him again?

How can I be excited for Google Glass now? How can I be pumped for I/O or 3D Google Earth or a partnership with the Library of Congress, or anything they come up with? They’ve poisoned the well in the worst way; they made it clear that Google is worse than mercenary — it’s banal.

I can still be happy for what they’ve given us, and that’s not a little. They led the data-voracious of the world, spurred sluggish markets into action, and truly revolutionized (I don’t use the word lightly) the way we navigate data by changing what we think of as data (namely, everything). I can still follow the good works of the Maps and Books teams with approval or marvel a bit at the technical accomplishment of Glass, or thank them for their advocacy in Washington, though now it is without positive sentiment, like looking at the drawings some other person’s kids did at school.

Google’s greatest legacy may be in the lesson that they have given the next generation of companies and visionaries. Google said “Don’t be Evil,” and they meant it, but they found what others have found: it’s easier said than done, not because of temptation, but because nobody is quite sure what evil is. Luckily, those that are to come may be guided by a simpler principle:

Don’t be Google.

Who’s Afraid Of Google Glass?

insect

“First you see video. Then you wear video. Then you eat video. Then you be video.” — Pat Cadigan, Pretty Boy Crossover

Sheesh. A whole lot of people who presumably have never actually seen Google Glass in action appear to be really upset. “People who wear Google Glass in public are assholes,” says Gawker’s Adrian Chen. “You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it,” doom-cries Mark Hurst.

Seriously, people? Seriously? DARPA has built drone-mounted 1.8-gigapixel cameras that can recognize people waving from 15,000 feet. Gait recognition software is good enough that they probably don’t even need to see your face. Oh, yes, and they’re working on legions of drones the size of insects, too, while they’re at it. There’s already one closed-circuit camera for every 32 people in the United Kingdom. And the NSA is building a new 65-megawatt data center in Utah to parse this brave new world of big data.

Meanwhile, everywhere you go, hardware is getting faster, software is getting better, everything is being networked. We’re marching boldly into a panopticon future. I’ve been writing about this for years. And now, suddenly, you’re irate about the potential privacy repercussions of a few geeks bearing glasses? What is wrong with you people? Where have you been?

I think cameras on the glasses of random passersby are among the least of your privacy concerns. At least there’s a red LED that winks on when Google Glass is recording, so you’ll know that you’re suddenly starring in your interlocutor’s home video. As panopticons go, the Google Glass version is pretty mild-mannered and half-hearted. The recent spate of furious privacy concerns are enormously overwrought compared to how much we should be concerned about our governments.

But there’s something about being caught on video, not by some impersonal machine but by another human being, that sticks in people’s craws and makes them go irrationally berserk. If these were glasses that recorded audio and took still photos when the wearer double-blinked, would anyone be near as upset? Hell, no. But video is somehow primal; video hits us where we live. (That’s why it’s so insanely popular. Did you know that YouTube is arguably the world’s second most popular social network?)

To a limited extent I actually want Google Glass surveillance, in an uneasy Pandora’s-box kind of way. I want police officers, border guards, and other authorities to be required to wear them every moment that they’re on duty, and I want that data to be available to those who report police brutality or other abuses of authority. (I’ve been saying that for five years, ever since I was mugged at gunpoint in Mexico City. Pretty sure it would have made a big difference to, for instance, my friend Peter Watts.) I want street protestors to be videoing the authorities at all times. I do not trust the powers that be.

If pervasive, ubiquitous networked cameras ultimately make public privacy impossible, which seems likely, then at least we can balance the scales by ensuring that we have two-way transparency between the powerful and the powerless, rather than just a world where the former spy on the latter; and we can give people the tools required for online and/or personal privacy, such as pseudonyms and easy-to-use strong cryptography.

That’s not to say I’m feeling all Panglossian about Google Glass. (Panglassian? Sorry.) My concern is far more petty: it’s that other people’s videos are almost uniformly terrible.

I know a little about moving pictures. I’ve done camerawork for TV shows, just helped build a site that shows curated movies, and I take the odd pretty good photo, if I do say so myself. But video is hard. Much harder to do well than pictures, which anyone can get right now and again via trial and error. Take a look at Vine, or Takes: one reason they’re only a few seconds long is that, if they were any longer, almost all examples of the form would quickly be revealed as nearly unwatchable crap.

Don’t get me wrong, putting new tools in everyone’s hands, and making them easier, inevitably leads to some awesome outsider art, and that’s always been doubly true for video. Take my friend Count Jackula’s series of horror-movie reviews, for instance, which increasingly have become hilarious short films in their own right.

So let’s hope the next generation, born in video, will use it more fluently, and find ways to make use of the petabytes of data that Google Glass or its ilk will generate. And that’s “will” not “may.” Yes, it’s entirely possible that Google Glass is like Apple’s Newton, 10 years ahead of its time, but –

– something like it is coming, sooner or later, almost inevitably. We may ultimately need augmented reality glasses in order to filter out all the bad videos of other people’s mediocre augmented realities. Maybe that’s what Pat Cadigan meant by “then you eat video.” On my bad days I feel like we’re all about to drown in a sea of awful home movies, while being tracked by drone- and signpost-mounted surveillance cameras 24/7/365; like we’re all sleepwalking onwards into a really tacky dystopia. Brace yourselves.

Image credit: I for one welcome our insect-drone masters, by yours truly, on Flickr.