Gadgets

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.

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