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The Disorderly March VII

October 26, 2010

(As always, FD I’m a contractor to a company with contracts with MS.) 

I’ve written about things I dislike about the Google mindset before, though in some cases these aren’t Google-specific behaviors.  I won’t go on yet again about Marissa Mayer dismissing any student with a C on their transcript as a possible employee, because the philosophy-religion of Transcriptarianism is spread far and wide.  But that religion definitely has its roots in an unshakeable faith in metrics as the be-all and end-all of knowledge.  If we turn all potential employees into their GPAs, and screen out anyone with a “glitch” in their transcript, it’s an article of that faith that the “best and brightest” remain.  And undoubtedly, if what you are looking for are engineers in the broadest negative sense, i.e. people who can engineer a good grade in anything by saying what pleases a professor or cheating on a paper or ignoring family crises to study harder, then yes, you are getting the best without a doubt.

If you choose to privilege mass taste over creativity, then you focus-group every color choice on your website before you use it, rather than going the route wherein a single person has the final say on the look and feel of a product.  Both Google and Apple are highly successful, of course, but at which of those companies, if you were a creative person, do you think your talents would be most appreciated?  You could make the case that Steve Jobs inherently knows what people like, whereas Google has to run the numbers to find out, but I’d argue that there is nothing creative about intentionally designing to please the greatest mass of people by giving them what they already want – creativity is giving them what they don’t know they want until they get it.  (I.E., the difference between “Inception” and “Saw VII.”)

The latest example of what I consider the failure of the metric model is illustrated in this recent article in the Times about Google’s failure in the social networking field.  As they try to make up for their failures in this realm,

some wonder whether Google understands enough about social connections to create the tools people want to use.

“Google’s culture is very much based on the power of the algorithm, and it’s very difficult to algorithm social interaction,” Ms. Li said.

For example, the introduction of Buzz in February caused a wave of criticism from privacy advocates and everyday users, because it automatically included users’ e-mail contacts in their Buzz network. Google quickly changed the service so that it suggested friends instead of automatically connecting them.

Before Buzz’s release to the public, it was tested only by Google employees.

“There is some belief at Google that their DNA is not perfectly suited to build social products, and it’s a quite controversial topic internally,” said a person who has worked on Google’s social products who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

“The part of social that’s about stalking people, sharing photos, looking cool — it’s mentally foreign to engineers,” the person said. “All those little details are subtle and sometimes missed, especially by technical people who are brought up in a very utilitarian company.”

I think this speaks to one of the greatest flaws in Transcriptarianism and Orderly Marching, and mirrors what Frank Rich said about the tone-deafness of the Obama administration in this article (which I wrote up here).  If you spend your life avoiding anything that might get messy (such as romantic relationships with subpar students who might come back to haunt or even stalk you later), if you spend your life so assiduously networking and career-enhancing that you “friend” everyone you meet who might possibly be of use to you later in your career or be able to write you a recommendation, then it simply will not occur to you that other people don’t live that way, that they don’t want to share everything with everybody because there are dangers involved in that – and, most damningly, if every single person in your organization is recruited and hired using the same metrics and standards, there will be nobody in that organization to tell you that everybody in the world is not like everybody you know.  You run your idea past all your co-workers, who all love it, because they’re just like you.

For most of us, friendship is about passionate attachment – people who see the world as we do, who save us from feeling like we’re alone in a world of madmen, who accept us with all our crazy ways and proclivities, who give us a sounding board for our ideas and whose intellect we treasure as a supplement to our own…but in the “metric system,” friendship is nothing but a tool to drive sales and page views.  Wow, here’s a passionate understanding of friendship:

“Google, as part of our mission to organize the world’s information, also needs to organize and make it very useful for you to see the interactions of your friends, to participate with them and benefit,” Mr. Gundotra said.

In this view, friends are nothing but digital information streams, validating everything Jaron Lanier said about the depersonalizing effects of social networking systems.  Google will always make buckets of money, nobody ever went broke monetizing the taste of the majority, but there are realms in which it is destined to fail if it doesn’t diversify its workforce in way it is probably unequipped or willing to do.  “Diversity” alas has come to mean a rainbow of races and genders and sexualities all equipped with a PhD in maths from one of a handful of prestige schools.

I can’t help but think about the very little traffic I get to this site, almost all of it accidental – people looking for “how to unfriend someone on Facebook” get my post ironically titled “Unfriend Request.”  The software that drives search is inherently tone deaf, unable to discern the difference between a post that is useful to the searcher and one that mocks the idea in question.  The more people who are misdirected to that posting, the more “popular” it becomes, and the more people are sent there.  What we make is a reflection of who we are, and if software is tone deaf perhaps it is because its makers are, too. 

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