Is Google Blinded By Its Own Smarts?

Google revealed a lot at Google I/O: a shimmering tablet at a good price, a sci-fi home theatre orb, seriously sophisticated search and Jelly Bean. It also revealed an unsettling lack of human understanding.

We've had privacy concerns before, but could it be more? Could it be that Google just doesn't get real people?

The keynote sounded one futuristic clarion call after another: Glass, the wearable computer; Google Now, a smartphone system that provides intricately tailored life information; the Nexus Q, a social media streamer; and a fancy new way to throw parties with Google+. But underneath each of these feats of technology you could see a hollow, lurching weirdness that makes you wonder: Who will use any of this stuff besides the actors in Google's promo videos?

Everything new from Google is prima facie fantastic and served with the best intentions. Google is a monolithic company, sure, but it's filled with geniuses who want to make your life easier through technology. Nobody's faulting their ambition, or questioning its motives. But we have to wonder: Are these new things meant for regular people, or are they only meant for the data-obsessed Silicon Valley nerd vanguard? As much as we wish it weren't so, the answer seems a lot like the latter. That the company responsible for Android is still building for robots. In each case, Google has balanced on golden fingers a product — clearly with a lot of time, thought and money behind it — that just doesn't seem to jibe with the way we actually live our lives. There isn't any lack of effort or innovation here, but rather a gaping disconnect between the way data geeks and the rest of us see the world.

Consider the Nexus Q. It's a beautifully machined object, with pulsating lights, a face that's both futuristic and friendly, and the ostensible goal of making it easier to listen to music and watch movies with friends. Who could oppose that? Only some sort of monster! But look at the way Google envisions us using it: you go to your friend's house, bump her Q with your Nexus (reread that sentence a few times) for NFC access, then sit on the couch taking turns streaming media to the home theatre. Uhhh.

This is a strange take on the decades-old practice of sitting around listening to and looking at things. Is it defeating the whole point? Q asks us to stare and contemplate software, to be ever conscious of our phones and tablets, and to pull ourselves out of enjoyment for the same of interaction. Blech to all of that — don't people just want to throw on a playlist or Pandora and have a drink? Injecting so many menus, no matter how gracefully designed and modern, between your friends and the things you like, seems downright antisocial. It's doubtful will buy or use the Q because it just doesn't sound like any fun unless you're an Android engineer.

The same empathy vacuum threatens the rest of Google's reveals. Glass is tremendously neat, in that it takes movie scenes and active imaginations common to all of us and makes them a real thing out of plastic and metal. First person videos are a genuinely cool idea. But Google thinks that we're all ready to walk around wearing the things. Which, you know, we aren't. Not everyone is a somewhat eccentric data maven billionaire, too rich and lost in a world of giant ideas to care how he looks walking around all day. Are you? This presents not just a leap in technology, but in culture.

For many of us, a computer that's literally sitting on our face for every waking moment sounds really socially alienating. Say what you want about the punctures smartphones have delivered to everyday interaction, but at least those things go back to our purses and pockets when they're not being used. But Glass is there to stay, becoming a part of your face, and turning you into a baby-scaring cyborg. Unless everyone in the world gets a pair and simultaneously agrees this is no longer weird, what functionality is worth being the guy with the robo-face? While we struggle to imagine Google Glasses reconciled with normal life, Google isn't sweating it — normal life isn't an issue. The question is, should we laud their futuristic boldness, or wince at uncomfortable expectations?

Google's making similar declarations about the way our lives should be with its new software, too. Nobody really uses Google+, and this week's flagship addition — a new way to organise and share parties — makes it hard to believe that'll change. The new Google+ will be just as earnest and kindly intentioned as it's ever been, designed to share moments and thoughts and insights with people you care about. If only it worked that way. Instead, Google+'s "party mode" is as painfully dorky as it sounds, and bizarrely opposed to the entire point of a party. Where's the humanity in that?

Facebook's event invites might be bare, but that's fine — we just want to broadcast the information and get the word out. A means to an end (fun). We don't want to spend time agonising over which GIF of a sparkler or peach cobbler to send to our uninhabited Google+ circles so that our guests can in turn upload photos of the jumpoff in real time, providing some bastardised function halfway between party and panopticon. We don't need real-time visuals of a kegger or BBQ. Our social lives don't need analytics. The people at our events should never be equalled or bested by the advanced software that got them there — but Google risks putting an internet Hangout on the same plane as celebrating an IRL hangout. We normals don't want software that brings us into a circle around LCD screens as a party climaxes; we want to be around each other, right? Google should be making things that facilitate this, not some overwrought invite system more complex than actually planning a party. It's enough to make you a little uncomfortable

Same deal with Google Now, which is incredible, but similarly wince-inducing. It's probably the best mobile search ever seen — and sure beats the shirt off Siri — but what happens when that awe and lustre rubs off? Google told us Android's search would be stellar because it would know everything about our lives — where we eat, where we live, where we work, constantly following our moves and tastes in order to provide intricate answers when we need them. But the whole deal presumes we're comfortable being followed and memorised like that. To Google, it's a non-grievance. Who would ever care? Why would you turn down a computer that knows the details of your personal life, and can predict the next one?

Google might be blinded by its own smarts. It's an honest to god braintrust, filled with people who want to make the future. But here's the thing about the future: it should make the way we live our lives better, not dictate the way we live our lives. It's unintentional — the company truly thinks Google+ is super cool. And maybe it is, to the engineers behind it. But for those of us who aren't data-crazed boy geniuses, it's a nerdy imposition.

Precision and power shouldn't supplant personality in the things we use, and if there's an opportunity to get more information, we shouldn't rush to say yes. But Google's keen to say yes for us all: even if it makes us feel funny or lonely. Even if it could have the opposite of the intended effect. The idol of technology and the marvels it could yield towers over us, wearing a computer on its face, letting a phone predict its lunch, and sitting in the corner of a party looking at pictures of other people having fun. Google's making plenty of impressive things — but are they impressive things that anyone actually wants?

We've reached out to Google for comment and will update with any responses.


Comments

    Hatters gonna hate

      I didn't read anything about hats... leave the hatters out of this!!

      Of course! They're mad hatters

    "Facebook’s event invites might be bare, but that’s fine — we just want to broadcast the information and get the word out."

    Thank you for telling me what we want, up until now I had no idea.

    Sure, Google have a recent history of missing the mark with stuff like Wave and Plus, but we need to encourage comapnies like Google to keep pushing the envelope with their billions, otherwise we are accepting now as the end point.

    Innovation and change is hard, unpredictable, and expensive. We need to be daring and eventually the next iPod will emerge.

      +1
      Look at Gmail.
      Can't tell me that's not successful.
      Google Maps, Another one.
      There will always be hits and misses.
      A good outfit will not let the misses get them down. (Not talking about spouses here either)

      This is it. Google experiments all the time. Wave didn't work out and I don't think the Nexus Q will either, but I'm glad they have the cojones to actually give it a shot. The tech industry is so cut-throat and merciless that most players don't bother doing anything adventurous. This is why despite all their clunkers, I appreciate that Asus does batshit insane stuff like the Padfone.Compare this with Samsung who despite all their power and money, just ape anything Apple does.

      It's wholly different from Apple's staid and safe practices. WWDC at this point is largely the announcing of services that were available in last year's I/O.

      Exactly how is Google Plus a miss?
      Here's how I see things...

      From Sept 2006 to 25 July 2007 Facebook gains 30 Million Users (Including all universities and the public) It had been available to the public for just under a year.

      Google Plus has been around since June 2011 and currently has over 150 Million ACTIVE users.

      The way I see it Google has been doing things just right

        As high in users as G+ is, I dunno if its' quite right...
        I signed up reading the description of a social media site, but all that appears on it is stories being reposted from sites like here, lifehacker and techcrunch (to name a few). As useful as it is to have these stories being pooled on one place, I could have done that with an RSS reader...

        There are other cool things in it, like hangouts and such, but I know no one who uses any of those features... Just cause it has a big user base, does directly mean success. Think about the number of people actively using the internet everyday in 05-06 and then 11-12. Vastly larger numbers than when facebook started up, and facebook was started from scratch, while G+ comes from a large company with a existing large user base as well.
        You have a LOT of things to think about when determining whether it could be a hit or a miss, but given how many people end up using G+, its worth wondering if its being used anything like how Google planned for it to be.

      Exactly how is Google Plus a miss?
      Here's how I see things...

      From Sept 2006 to 25 July 2007 Facebook gains 30 Million Users (Including all universities and the public) It had been available to the public for just under a year.

      Google Plus has been around since June 2011 and currently has over 150 Million ACTIVE users.

      The way I see it Google has been doing things just right.

    People don't want to walk around broadcasting everything they see, we've had the technology to be able to do this for 20 years, it hasn't taken off. Shrinking a camera inside down to a small hand-held package didn't do this, neither did hiding it in a phone, and neither will putting it in a set of glasses frames with a HUD. You can give people the ability to do 'amazing' things, this doesn't mean they will do them. This 'unsettling lack of human understanding' means that we're treated to a technological showcase of aspiration, demonstrated and executed in gimmicky ways (eg, skydivers and spherical media players) but doomed because they don't seek to 'naturally' extend or evolve the way do things, which is the foundation of successful innovation, instead they look to change the way people do things, or even the way we are. Sure, all innovation is disruptive, but successful innovation is a positive disruption, things improve, even if it's just things getting faster, or easier, or more aesthetically . Sticking a camera in or on someone's face is a bit confrontational, and I can see how the market will resist it - the precursor to fail.

    Gotta say, although sometimes limited in application, I can see myself (and my friends) using the Nexus Q in certain social situations (rather than swapping out phones plugged into the stereo/playlists). I can also envision utilisng the Google+ party mode at parties - I know heaps of people who take photos in the middle of parties and post them straight to facebook or google+.

    I know these things wont be for everyone, but I dont see them being completely useless.

    Also, I'd put money on google glass being a completely different product by the time it hits the consumer market.

    I get what Sam is trying to say, it's just not really coming out right.

    I don't enjoy having friends over and 3 of them are on facebook or playing Words with friends whilst the rest of us play poker, but that's the way it is. Tell them to stop being antisocial, and they put them away...for a little while.

    If you don't want Glass, don't buy it or wear it.
    For those people that believe their life is so interesting that it needs to be recorded 24/7, then they can. The point is that they can now have a choice.
    This could be worn by police, performance artists or porn stars and provide different and valuable information and points of view, but without investment and development, we won't find out if it's useful.

    Google isn't alone in wanting to track you. Apple does it, facebook does it, hell, even Telstra does it.
    Information leads to money, and that's what companies are after.

    Don't want to be tracked? Probably need to hand in your keys to the Internet and live in a Faraday cage encased cave.

      Agree entirely.
      The interesting thing will be the future, as other posters have alluded to. The baseline for technological integration will have moved on. All of these innovations, whether successful or not will have contributed to it doing so... The people that Sam refers to as geeks may be the norms in 10 years or the minimals... All good.

      Porn stars wearing google glass nice idea! :P

      Re: Google Glass. I think one of the big issues people are going to have is, yes people can record their life 24/7 if they wanted but you being part of their life will also be ever immortalized in digital format too. You may never even realise you were recorded doing something that you don't really want the world to know. With a phone you can usually tell someone is taking a pic/video and if you have an issue you can interject.
      Yes it's great to have choices but this can easily take a choice out of my hands and give it to someone else.

    The Google brand is rapidly coming to represent those people that can only value the quantifiable. Where specifications win, where the newest technology is all that matters. Those of us that don't work in the technology space know exactly what I'm talking about. We work with people each and everyday that espouse the Google philosophy. Generally they are our developers, our IT architects and engineers that NEED firm and quantified inputs to deliver their services.

    I'll admit, absolutely none of that appeals to me. I use Apple, Microsoft and SONY products predominantly. None of them are perfect but I feel like they are attempting to offer me more. That they are trying to understand the interplay of technology and my life is more than simply the sum of easily measurable inputs.

    Anyway, just my thoughts as they relate to the article above.

    Most of the things you describe may not look that interesting at the moment, but they are platforms upon which more can be built, and services can be improved so that do become truly useful. That doesn't mean all will, but only enough need to do that in order to justify the cost of the others to be worth it.
    Regards privacy, as long as they keep within published guidelines I'm prepared to accept the trade off.
    You don't need to wear Google Glasses all the time. You *can* take them off it you want. It also depends on what you're used to, as a lot of kids growing up today don't even care because they're so used to this 'new concept' of privacy.
    BTW I may not use Google+ as much as Facebook but I'm very, very happy there is a competitor because FB is more and more looking like a monopoly.

    "Unless everyone in the world gets a pair and simultaneously agrees this is no longer weird, what functionality is worth being the guy with the robo-face?"

    You could be describing the last ten years of people wearing bluetooth earpieces. They're still weird.

      I remember the reaction to the people who had answering machines on their home phones or to the people who first used mobile phones in public. They were called all sorts of bad names and now "everyone" has a mobile phone. That is, give the world a chance to understand and adopt new technology.

    you can say the same stuff about apple. Who actually uses Siri? no one...but it may be useful (and profitable) one day so they develop it.

      I use Siri. While in the car yesterday I got a text message, so I asked Siri to read it to me, and then she replied on my behalf.

      She is also the quickest way to add a location based reminder.

      I use siri all the time, mainly for searching for food (which obviously hasn't been in Aus yet)

        Know a few people with Iphones, and none of them ever use it. Played around when it first come out, but after that its become obsolete.

    So much FUD in this 'article.'

    Off topic, but many chrome for IOS users are reporting that they can't sign in. So chrome is slower than safari, but at least you can't sync across devices.

    There is only one thing I can fault with Glass without actually having a decent understanding of what it is.

    I want the control pad thing to be on the left, so I can use it at the same time as I'm using my right hand on the mouse of my computer or using my phone in my right hand.

    What they are doing is pushing Sergey and other founders out to the peripheries while changing the company from within to be evil. The more distracted Sergey and the people in Google who believe in the terms they originally tried to uphold, that Google should not be evil the better it is for shareholders. Google is lost my friends.

      And you know this because (you love FUD)?

      Seriously dude? What are you smokin?

    So much hate!! Points could have been conveyed in a more sensibly.it looks like someone's personal agenda against Google..Cant recommend the article to any friend..

    You are wrong, this is a great idea.

    All I'm seeing is poorly disguised Apple fanboyism.

      All I'm seeing is immature nerds using words like 'fanboyism'

        don't start people!

        All Im' seeing is two people who typed 'fanboyism' wrong.

    This is what makes Google so successful, they take chances and.......... they innovate!
    Google has no problem acknowledging a failed product, eg. wave, et al.
    That is why they have so many successful products too eg. maps, gmail, search, andoid.
    This article should be about how Google takes chances and wins......
    A good of a failed company could be RIM where they invested everything into one product 'blackberry' that was a hit for a short period of time but they failed to supplement their product portfolio and bombed.
    Personally I believe the Google Q and Google glasses will fail, as consumers and technology isn't ready for glasses and the connected TV (Google Q) is target at a dead market.
    But hey big ups for trying and Google is one company that is in a position both monetarily and diverse enough to try and fail.
    Only the most innovative company's will survive and prosper during this economic downturn and I believe Google is leading the pack.

    I admire Google for pushing things forward not just incremental updates every year

    Google has had a long and proud tradition of throwing against a wall to see what sticks.

    The tablet stuck.

    The glasses have the potential too.

    Everything else fell.

    I hope they will continue with this.

    What people really want is overpriced gadgets they're compelled to upgrade every 12 months!

    "This presents not just a leap in technology, but in culture."

    It certainly does. I don't understand how Sam can think that it won't work because of that though. Just look at the iPhone. It too, represented a huge leap in culture, as before it, the masses were happy with their feature phones. Later on in the article, Sam laments the potential problem with "party mode", that people will be staring at their screens more than they are engaging with the social gathering. Well, that culture shift has already taken place over the last few years.

    Things don't just not work because it requires a culture change. People will adapt their culture to a new idea if they want it enough.

    lol just another google hate article. At least they are trying something new

    Google is busy building tomorrow and you have culture shock

    Google+ is fantastic - but unfortunately for me it suffers from, hardly anyone uses it and because hardly anyone uses it no one will use it. If it had launched at the same time as facebook, things would have turned out very differently. The what's hot feature is cool, and my dad trusts it more than Facebook. So I get to see his holiday snaps through it. I use it to follow people like Twitter

    So, hang on, you applaud their innovation but in the next breath you essentially say "don't bother" because YOU don't see any value in the things that their innovating on? Sure GGlass might be a bit 'dorky' looking now but I'm sure the design will become more refined in time. Also, you don't have to record EVERYTHING and upload it - the point is that they make 'capturing the moment' more convenient. As they say "the best camera is the one you have with you". GNow looks downright awesome - and again, if you don't want Goog to know where you are etc, turn off your GPS and don't open the app. Sheesh! G+Events - same goes, those who want to use it, can, those who don't want to don't have to but at least they have the option. Maybe it's purposely designed to fill the gap that you pointed out with the 'bare' FB event invites? And the Q? Can't I just use it as a streamer (and a bridge too apparently) - it's not just limited to social events/media streaming...

    Look, we get it - YOU don't like the things Google presented but maybe, just maybe, millions of others do... Besides, technology IS innovation, whether it's successful or not. Without it, we'd still be living in caves, freezing, trying to catch lizards and bugs for dinner.

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