Sunday, July 13, 2008

Google thoughts and raging against the machine

We've all done it.

There's a scene in the movie Wanted where James McAvoy's character Googles his name in the search engine. Suffocating in the meaningless drudgery of the 9 to 5 cubicle existence, he searches for some value to attach to his name. Wesley Gibson, he types. The search returns "no results." Dejected, Wesley seems to surrender to the idea that these search results only confirm the irrelevance of his sad, pathetic life.

I admit I've Googled myself before. Call it narcissism, call it sheer curiosity. Somehow over the past couple of years, Google has become the litmus test of human significance, even if we only laugh at its triviality when we realize how few website hits our names actually conjure up.

I suppose I've always naively assumed that Google is an impersonal entity, mathematically doling the best possible search results on the Internet. Like for most of you, I'm sure, it's my "go to" guy. Whenever I want to know the title of some passing lyric that I can't quite get out of my head but can't quite name, I go to Google. Or I am searching for a restaurant or best price on a book I want. I go to Google.

I read an article last night in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr called "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" Becca is actually the one who pulled the magazine off of the shelf. I rolled my eyes at the article's title, assuming it would be the ravings of some regressive, anti-technological crackpot who wanted to once again shake his obsolete, idealistic fist at the defects of our increasingly Internet-dependent society. But as we stood in Books-A-Million and really immersed ourselves in the article, something within me began to unravel.

Carr wrote about how throughout history, human-created modes of technology--particularly communication technology--have in turn shaped how we take in information, internalize it and release it back again. The clock, the printing press, now the Internet have imprinted themselves upon the way we process information. Before clocks, humans used to be guided by the rising and the setting of the sun, the harvests, the waxing and waning of the moon. With the introduction of clocks and timepieces, we have allowed an artificial measurement of time to completely redefine our approach to life. As Carr quotes author Joseph Weizenbaum who wrote Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation: "the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments 'remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.' In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock."

In the same way, the Internet has shaped the way we read information. In the endless smorgasboard of blogs, 30 second news bytes, webpages and more, deep, thoughtful reading is becoming a rarer pastime. Carr quotes a pathologist from UM Medical School that said "his thinking, he said, has taken on a 'staccato' quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. 'I can't read War and Peace anymore,' he admitted. 'I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.'"

As Carr points out, people don't sit in the library stacks or comb through piles of periodicals so much anymore. We research online, scanning dozens and dozens of webpages. We love bullet points, abstracts, summaries, just to get the gist of what is being said without actually reading the whole book or article. We chalk it up to convenience, speed and the fact that we have much better things to do with the time we're saving.

It struck me last night that the Internet somehow has made it acceptable for people to dwell on the trivial. Would I want to even know the title of some random song if the ability to so readily search for it wasn't so readily available? Probably not. The fact that I am even blogging about this article shows how much the Internet has shaped the way I process ideas and information. Literally, my first instinct after reading this article was, "I need to blog about this."

Carr points to Google as the prime example of how we humans have been shaped by the Internet. While we used to view people through the lens of clocks (people being like "clockwork") or the printing press ("he read me like a book"), the Internet has become the new lens through which we view humanity. We speak casually of ourselves "processing information." We view ourselves as primarily data-processing machines. And the Internet is the prime mover and hub of this information.

What's more, people behind entities like Google know that and embrace it. Google's mission statement is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It seeks to develop "the perfect search engine," which it defines as something that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want."

Google views information as a commodity, a "utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency." The faster and more efficient, the better. Google's two founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have openly indicated eagerness and intention to explore the realm of artificial intelligence. Brin was quoted in Newsweek as saying "Certainly, if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off."

And this is part of Google's vision of "universally accessible information."

For some unknown reason, Google's identity as a profit-driven corporation never really clicked in my mind before. Even the naming of Google as the top company in the nation to work for, for some some inexplicable reason, I have never truly thought of Google as being a profit-driven corporation that thrives off of the commoditization of information. And reducing people to mere machines that in turn process this information is a conflict of interest for the dignity of human life.

Truly reducing people to mere data-processing machines that must intake information faster and faster with the aid of the Internet sounds completely dehumanizing to me. This may be a bit of a strong statement, and of course I am fully aware that I have benefited (or at least been entertained) from the many uses of the Internet. I'm a myspacing, facebooking, twittering, emailing fiend. But to know that something as seemingly innocuous as Google is founded on the principle that humans are at the basest level, mere data-processing machines that can eventually be supplemented--or even replaced with impersonal artificial intelligence--disturbs me.

It makes me want to critically rethink my entire approach to the Internet, texting, facebooking, emailing. Everything. I am not necessarily going to give up on technology--I'm not that disciplined or crazy or radical. I certainly acknowledge the benefits. But it makes me want to question and critically rethink the value of relating to people on the Internet. And shape my life accordingly. And I know I've thought through this many times before, on the value of texting or facebooking as a replacement or at least a supplement to actual human interaction... that debate has been there since this whole Internet craze began. It's nothing new.

But I feel like I just swallowed the red pill in the Matrix.

"In the end, all we want is to be known."

Thoughts, anyone?


Jeanne said...

Can you put this in bullets, please?

Haha, kidding. I thought that comment was funny (I laughed out loud) because I'm so prone to it. I'm an efficiency fiend, if anything, and inefficiency is one of the main methods of my frustration.

In writing that, I realize the point of your story. I have felt, often in this past year, that I am tired of the 'typical' day. Wake up, eat, work, workout, hang out, sleep. Fit in minor enjoyments in between, such as reading, tv, etc. However, much of this time is just 'surviving'. It's not involved in truly existing and learning. I don't know how this really relates to your topic, other than it seems that it's part of the dehumanization of being a 'data-processing machine' versus a relational being.

I have also had those thoughts before about how texting and AIMing and emailing have really drawn me away from the human interaction of phone calls and meeting in person. However, I usually can justify this because of my craze for efficiency. "It's easier to text someone because you don't have to go through the initial conversation just to figure out what time you are going to dinner." I still think that could be a valuable argument, but it does seem that it pulls us away from each other.

I have to process this more. Haha.

Seriously, though. I'd like to read that article...

And on a random note, the more that I travel, the more I long to make traveling my life. If only I could figure out how to do this...

Ok, off to downtown. See you in a few days!

melissa said...

Don't worry, I fully intend on sharing the article (in person!) with you upon your return. That was my plan all along. mwuahah.

In response, I think that is the main question I'm wrestling with.... Technology brings the benefit of efficiency, but efficiency to what end? What are we truly accomplishing by streamlining our schedules and behavior? I think we get into trouble when efficiency becomes the end and not the means.

Haha I don't know what other term to use other than "process" either! Even as I was writing that, I was like "Crap... what other word can I use?"

There's seriously so much more to the article. I did an inadequate job of, wait. haha. Man, I am SO trapped by this data-processing paradigm!

You should be one of those people who write the "Let's Go" travel books! It could be your job to travel, eat in cool restaurants, visit clubs/museums, etc. and explore traveling options and then write about them. Just a friendly suggestion:)

melissa said...

p.s. Jeanne--are you quoting yourself?:)

Jeanne said...

I'm confused - where did I quote myself? It wouldn't surprise me though :)

Jonathan said...

after skimming your article, my thought is that we should forsake computers and live in the wilderness.

melissa said...

Jeanne: " "It's easier to text someone because you don't have to go through the initial conversation just to figure out what time you are going to dinner." I dunno, there were quote marks around it. And knowing you, you would probably use that argument;)

Jonathan: haha;) Some of his arguments are certainly a bit flawed, but he definitely gave me a lot to think about it.

Anonymous said...

Jeanne's comment makes me laugh:)
Well, the first sentence anyway.

Good post;)