Can Google platitude its problems away?

By James Robinson , written on February 4, 2014

From The News Desk


It was perhaps naive of me to expect specifics from Megan Smith, the Vice President of Google's semi-secret technology incubator Google[x]. So little is known about the facility outside of the projects that have leaked out so far - Google Glass, self-driving cars, floating balloons providing Internet to remote parts of the world, kite windmills, smart contact lenses - that even the title of her 30-minute Startup Grind talk, 'How Google[x] Sees The World,' intrigued me.

Would it be a loose articulation of the process of trying to create technologies to change the world? Some thoughts on implementing these mind-blowing technologies given the frustrations and backlash now directed towards Google Glass wearers?

Um, no. Smith, an MIT Media Lab grad and ten-year Google veteran, spoke about Google[x] for all of four minutes. We saw shots of a dark, nondescript office with messy desks. We got a rushed talk of ideas and prototypes, a list of projects we already knew about, and talk about business mantras like "2/3 yes AND 1/3 yes BUT."

The closest we got to an expression of technique or philosophy in how Google[x] goes about its stated aim of trying to make hardware that improves 10 times upon existing solutions was that she believes in "innovators and inventions that are very applied," that "access to innovation" is important and she wants to help "open up the potential for humanity."

You get the picture. Smith was on stage to talk Google[x] and didn't provide one specific insight. The rest of her talk was a testament to the Google adherence to platitude over explanation, to go so big picture on the transformative power of the Internet as to blow past real world squabbles about its practices.

The first slide was a globe, with lines of color exploding out of different parts of the world representing search data and the language it originated in. We took in a startup incubator in Hirat, Afganistan, a 12 million strong protest in Colombia organized through one Facebook group, a program to deliver laptops to children without teachers in African villages where kids used 50 apps in one week and talked about community mapping in third world countries where Google wasn't able to map them itself.

There was an inherent frustration in watching this. At a conference about entrepreneurship, a top-level discussion about issues around surveillance and Google's omniprescient role in our lives wasn't in order. But to a room full of people fascinated in Google's business, a company executive showed up with what amounted to be little more than a sales pitch on the transformative power of the Internet. It's eerily familiar with how the company addresses most of its public relations problems.

Most emblematic of this tension in Smith's talk was her use of the example of Google Books and its attempts, despite massive, global resistance and concerns over copyright abuses, to make every book ever written scannable and searchable. To her, this is allowing us to search across trends in humanity and put a "mirror" up to ourselves. As she mentions, researchers showed that the use of the word 'women' in literature was negligible until the advent of the women's rights movement.

"All world knowledge will be available online," Smith says. But telling us about the power of allowing the best teachers to collaborate seamlessly in the future doesn't make us forget the trade offs, or the angry authors. Nor should it.

Smith talked about data sets moving adjacent to each other and ecosystems and terabytes of climate information being fed into servers.

But all of it lacked teeth and detail to how it worked. It all fit too neatly into the cliche of Google as benevolent sociologist. I came away shaking my head. People are starting to agitate for an answer, a reason to trust Google, and, blissfully unaware, the company responds by pointing to its own grandiosity.