Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Google leader wants government to do its job

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This clip from ABC News shows Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, being interviewed by Christiane Amanpour. This is a reasonable man with an optimistic view of the economy's possibilities, seemingly stymied by the irrationality of our political paralysis and the emotional illusions that have shaped the country's response to economic troubles. Why doesn't government just get on with doing its part, he wonders. If it did its job, the businessmen and engineers would catch the ball and carry it forward.

Having just finished reading Steven Levy's In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, I'm not surprised to hear both Schmidt's completely reasonable prescription and his apparent frustration that the world around him just doesn't seem to get it. Google's success is a product of collecting the facts -- the data -- and following its implications.

One of the more interesting insights I got from reading Levy was that Google was late to the social dimension of the internet (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter etc.) because it was founded by and hired engineers who evaluated the significance of information on the basis of the wisdom of the entire global cloud. Google's search algorithm, the foundation of its business, depends on aggregating and analyzing what everyone online has thought about and judged to be important. The choices we make by our web clicks inform its intelligence.

Social networking turns the process of discovering salience on the internet upside down, shaping a personal, much smaller cloud for each person on the basis of the preferences of friends. This social internet space is individual -- and inherently limited. The Google cloud is the sum of all human experience and knowledge, intimidating perhaps, but also potentially unlimited.

In saying that, I've really said nothing that is not also captured in the truism that traveling to strange and different places broadens us and may make us more complete human beings. Google makes the internet an engineer's fantasy universe, shaped by that insight. There's lots to like in that. I found Levy's book a delightful window into how we have shaped and are shaped by our virtual lives.

By the way, Google owns Blogger, so naturally there is an Official Google Blog.

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