Monday, January 13, 2014

All Your Attention is Belong to the Google

Version 0.2

All Your Attention is Belong to the Google

This one is actually based on a social meeting and email exchange with one of the googlers I know socially. For the sake of social convention, I think I have to protect his anonymity and also preface these comments with a caution that I think he disavows my conclusion, which is summarized in the title of this blog. However I also feel that he has partially failed to understand my central points. Not sure if it is worth continuing that discussion with him, but for now I'm evidently just blogging my spleen, as they say.

One place to start is with the various kinds of realities we live with. Some examples include mathematical realities (absolute within the bounds of the assumptions), scientific realities (supposedly based on solid evidence), religious realities (where faith trumps evidence), business realities (reduced to the bottom line), and political realities (such as the dysfunction in today's USA). However, the particular kind of reality that is bothering me just now is social reality, where a particular social reality is based upon what some group of people believe about their society. The underlying problem is that a social reality can be wrong, can be changed, or, worst of all, can be manipulated. Today's questionable social reality is that advertising can and even should be shoved in your face.

Plodder that I am, I want to start with an example of a thoroughly discredited social reality. Take the ancient social reality of slavery. I think nowadays we have a pretty solid consensus that human slavery was always wrong, but it still prevailed as a social reality for thousands of years. The exact forms of slavery changed over the millenniums, but the operative conventions were that the slaves were supposed to accept their status (and treatment as property akin to domesticated animals) and therefore work hard for their masters. The exact rationale for their enslavement varied, though racial inferiority was a pretty frequent theme. Sometimes it was defined by their lack of military prowess that allowed them to be conquered or their lack of belief in the proper religion (of the masters), but the important thing was that the social reality said the slaves were slaves and should remain slaves. (Going tangential again, but actually, it isn't clear to me that we've fully eliminated slavery, though we continue to change the branding. About 35 years ago I studied a major church in Houston where South African apartheid was defended as upholding the proper blessed and sacred hierarchy, with the 'niggers' on the bottom (though I'm reasonably sure the preacher didn't use the N-word himself). In the last few years we seem to be developing new forms of indebted servitude and effective wage slavery based on inescapable student-loan debts in an economic environment packed with minimum-wage jobs that can never repay those loans. Separately, there's also the aspect that governments always have a strong preference for citizens who obey the government without annoying questions.)

Anyway, back to the main theme of why I believe "All your attention is belong to the google" is such a bad thing. The discussion in question actually started from my belief that time-based economics makes more sense, as jovially summarized in "Couch Potatoes of the World, Unite!" I was rather surprised or even shocked by his frankness in response. Google just wants the most precious time of all, the time with our attention attached to it. That's the time when an ad is most likely to do the most "good" and result in a paid click for the google and a possible sale for the advertiser paying for the click.

Consider the ethical ramifications of "All your attention is belong to the google". My position is that your time is a vital and precious resource, and you want to maximize the value of it. For example, if you have children, then I think you want to give lots of your attention to your children, but now that means you are intruding on the google's rights to claim all of your attention for more advertising. Yes, I'm overextending his position, but my point is that this claim on my attention fails the most basic ethical test: No one would not want to live in a world where that principle was broadly applied to everyone all of the time. Unfortunately, that is where the google is heading, in a desperate search for new and innovative ways to intrude on our attention and divert our precious and limited time to responding to ads.

My response to that meeting was to conclude that the google has become a kind of Russian Pravda joke. I'm pretty sure things have changed since the Soviet Union went away, but it used to be that the skill of reading the newspaper in the Soviet Union involved projecting backwards from the actual news stories. For example, if there were several articles about airplane crashes in other countries, the sophisticated Soviet reader understood it to signify that there had been an airplane crash somewhere in the USSR.

From that perspective, "Don't be evil" probably represented an understanding that the google was fundamentally an evil enterprise from the git go, whereas my original hypothesis had been that the google only became evil after it reached a critical mass and was 'captured' by the American legal system. (This is actually a diversion, but here is my brief summary of business in America: Most businesspeople are fine and upstanding folks who just want to play the game by the rules. Unfortunately, the rules are encoded as laws written by the most cheaply bribed professional politicians working for the greediest and least ethical businessmen. As 'big' businessmen, they are profiting from and therefore pushing forward a cancer-like economic model that must end with the death of the host.)

In the subsequent email, he had apparently concluded that I was arguing the world is generally evil, whereas my focus is simply on making things better. To be clear, I don't think the world is evil or bad, but that the world is a pretty amazing place and getting better—but only on the long-term average, and none of us live on the long term. For example, I believe that good people generally have better lives, but any individual can have bad breaks, no matter how good. (There are many religious and philosophic books on the theme of why bad things happen to good people, but you should be glad I'm not going there today...) I would diverge farther into consideration of evolutionary versus deliberative progress, but instead I'll just recommend a couple of the relevant books: The Blind Watchmaker, one of the best treatments of evolution, and The Omnivore's Dilemma, which has a lot on related topics from the perspective of what we eat and how. (Or is this diversion just another aspect of my zen collapse?)

Not sure how to bring all the threads together, but I strongly believe that "All your attention is belong to the google" is a joke of the sickest sort. Feel free to react, and my apologies in advance for the moderation (but I will not support the spammers).


Agamemnus said...

Pretty insightful, I suppose. Blog on!

shanen said...

Well, thanks for the encouragement, I suppose. If you really want me to 'blog on', you should poke a bit harder.

On one hand, I feel I should rewrite it in a thinner way. The philosophic intrusion is mostly from the discussion that didn't continue... The real insight would be if there is a solution by reversing the way advertising works--but of course the google would not appreciate the risks of trying something like that.

PCHLloyd said...

Are you familiar with R. Buckminster Fuller's writings? The way you write about the "American legal system" in re Google's "Don't Be Evil" motto until their "capture," strongly resembles one of Mr. Fuller's key concepts, known as "LAWCAP" (or "lawyer-capitalism"). If you have not read much on the subject of Fuller's analyses, you may find the following as interesting as I have:

[Ultra-mega-over-simplification: the "American legal system" is only peripherally (and incidentally) "American." It is rather a global system that respects no nationality or borders.] But the article is much more than this.

I am quite enjoying reading through your blog, sir. I only discovered it today as I was reading comments on TheRegister from last January. (Sorry for my late arrival.)

shanen said...

Thank you for your comment, and I suppose I should disclaim "It's not that kind of blog." After all these years, it's pretty clear that I'm still just writing mostly to hear myself think, so to speak, and not because I'm that concerned about who's listening. Trying to organize my thoughts in writing definitely helps me clarify them.

As regards the topic, I'm moderately familiar with his ideas and philosophies, but mostly through indirect citations. I'm reading the link you sent (in another tab), but so far it's pretty much as expected. He was quite far ahead of his time, as they say.

Returning to my own thinking on this general topic, I still stand by the position that the google has gone bad on us, but I'm more concerned with alternative economic theories, especially for time-based economics. I feel like the economists love money because the light is better there, not because it captures or represents the important aspects of the problems. Somewhat tongue in check, but my last writings on this topic are under "Couch potatoes of the world, Unite!" However, my current thinking has evolved beyond that point, and I still can't find any relevant books or research for time-based economics...

PCHLloyd said...

I really liked the "Couch potatoes of the world, unite!" essay. How has your thinking on this evolved/changed?

Have you read this little treatment on time-based economics? :

And this is a nice little slideshow (the charts and graphs are in English):

Spain seems to be onto something...

More specifically on the topic, I agree with your general conclusions about "the google" and their dangerously outsized (and growing) influence over the Internet, economy, privacy, the exchange of ideas, and social interaction. Has there ever been a more ambitious corporation? The East India Company in the 18th century had nothing on 'the google' for sheer, global, comprehensive domination over every minute they can extract from every person's life. (Sounds a bit hyperbolic now that I read that...) I've been trying out DuckDuckGo as my search engine for a while now, and I think I can live without the google [he says with childlike optimism].


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As a blogger from before there were blogs, I've concluded what I write is of little interest to the reading public. My current approach is to treat these blogs as notes, with the maturity indicated by the version number. If reader comments show interest, I will probably add some flesh to the skeletons...