Saturday, October 6, 2012

Googling the Googlers



And so it happens that I have spent half of the past week in Dublin, that fair city by the Liffey which spawned the likes of James Joyce, W.B.Yeats and Oscar Wilde, and thus birthed modern literature. But I wasn't on a literary pilgrimage – quite the opposite – I was there as a corporate client paying a visit to the largest internet company in the world.

It is God’s own sweet practical joke that, having been employed as a copywriter I should find myself being sucked down the plughole into the shady realms of SEM (search engine marketing). The logic is impeccable. Copywriters working in the travel business are supposed to go to places and write about them. But it becomes too expensive to send copywriters to places just so they can write about things which, in all honesty, can be legally gleaned from the internet from the comfort of an office chair. The next logical step is to do away with the writing bit altogether (apart from some skeleton text to accompany the rich media content) and focus instead on targeted searches – in any case the average attention span of a browsing customer has fallen to something like a matter of seconds. Google can help.

If you’re wondering how a guy who normally writes about scavenging dumps, eating leftover food and guerilla composting could also live a dual life embedded at the cutting edge end of the ultra high tech new vaporwear religion I’d have to reply: with some difficulty.  Having a foot in both boats as we sail down the river to a lower net energy future is a trick that many of us need to master in these difficult times, and warrants a future post.

I should probably say right from the outset that I'm not allowed to mention anything that went on inside their offices. If I did I’d quickly find myself without a job and, furthermore, I’d be hauled up before a magistrate for breaching the confidentiality agreement that all people who have set foot in a Google office have to sign (electronically, of course). Nevertheless, take it from me that it was a head swivelling experience, and I felt like I’d stepped into some kind of alternate universe. More on that towards the end of this post.

Dublin is a city undergoing collapse. It’s quite clear from all the boarded up shops, the acres of empty office space and the pitiful beggars one can see roaming the streets asking for change. Our taxi driver said that it was relatively easy to get around the city these days because traffic levels had been cut in half from only a few years ago. “Economic collapse has its bright side, you know,” he told us cheerily.

As we rolled along in the drizzle through the morning traffic the radio was announcing a big international jobs fair that was shortly to take place in the city. There would be 160 exhibitors, it intoned, offering a new life in places such as New Zealand, Canada and Brazil. The taxi driver, on hearing it said that young people wanted to get out of the country while they could. Two centuries of emigration he said, had been followed by two decades of immigration. “Now we've gone back to the emigration thing again.”

Google’s European headquarters are set in a part of the city that could probably be described as ‘arrested development’. Huge gleaming new office blocks stand shoulder to shoulder, empty and dusty and forlorn looking. In this setting, Google’s tower blocks (there are two) stand out like gleaming beacons of light. Inside them some three and half thousand employees, or Googlers as they are known. Each zone within the office has its own unique environment, with everything from a 1970s zone (complete with pinball machines and horrible wallpaper), a blue sky thinking zone (where everything is white), a rural zone (where people sit on artificial grass bales that come with all kinds of connectors for laptops and screen projectors) and much, much more. There’s even an authentic Irish pub for the Googlers to hang out in, although I doubt it would have been the kind of haunt that James Joyce would have approved of since it doesn't serve alcohol.

New office space lies empty in the Docklands area of Dublin
The average age of a Googler, I would say, is probably late-twenties. As a 41 year-old I felt like a ‘grey head’, in the parlance. All of them are extremely, extremely clever, and God only knows how many tests they have had to sit through to get them into their positions. Also, because this was the European HQ, there was a constant babble of different languages in use, like some kind of mini United Nations for under-thirties.

On the day I arrived it was on the front page of the Financial Times that Google had finally overtaken Microsoft in terms of value. This is in line with Google’s mantra, which is basically that there are no limits, and there are motivational slogans written on the office walls to that end. These are heady times for the company that started out as a search engine but is now in a position to challenge governments. Indeed, the only thing that can challenge Google’s meteoric growth, it seems, is the power of national governments. Especially China.

Google, increasingly, controls everything we do on the internet. It’s a sweet irony that I'm writing this using Google Docs and will then upload it onto Blogger, which is also owned by the company. YouTube, which is the world’s second largest search engine, now shows around 4 billion videos a day, and every second an hour of new material is uploaded to it. Google+ is growing exponentially as a challenger to Facebook (and with current share price projections Google could buy up Facebook in a year or two for peanuts) and a database is being developed to profile every internet user who uses one of its services. None of this is a secret – you are given open access to your own profile.

So what next for Google? Well, I've been in a state of some indecision about whether to write about the next thing or not, but I've done a bit of, yes, Googling and I can see that it is already out there in the public domain, so I'm going to go ahead and write about it in broad terms.

Augmented Humanity sounds like something out of a science fiction movie – but it’s already out there and is being developed right now. It was two years ago when Googler-in-chief Eric Schmidt first mentioned the term at a tech conference in Berlin. What he predicted was that we are now entering into an era when processing power, combined with artificial intelligence, could be further combined with the near omnipresence of mobile smart devices and ultra fast broadband, meaning that the tools are in place to ‘augment’ the human race.

Smart phones have now become so powerful that they can process everything they 'see' in real time, recognizing physical objects, as well as faces. If the user is wearing goggles, it’s possible to make a screen overlay that looks something like this:

A crude augmented reality shot
It’s not just objects and faces that can be decoded, however, but voices and other data streams. These things already exist, and are often used in things like apps for city tours (don’t forget that mobile devices are also able to track you to within a foot or two via GPS) and this is commonly called augmented reality. But their next stage of development – the shift from augmented reality to augmented humanity - will be a quantum leap, we are told.

Based on the profile being built up of its users, augmented humanity means that you will be plugged into the network 24/7. Look at the face of your friend and Google will remind you that it’s their birthday in a week and make gift suggestions based on their browsing history, and even order the gift for you with a blink of your eye. Tweets will hover mid-air in front of you and apartment blocks will be shaded pink to indicate a party, advertised on social media, is being planned by a friend of a friend of a friend. Google, in effect, will know what we are thinking before we have thought it, based on the digital profile model that it holds on us. In effect we will never need to think about anything again.

The person delivering this hopeful vision to us was clearly convinced of its benefits. To him the future was bright – very bright indeed – although I deemed it impolite to ask him what he thought about any technical limitations of achieving his dream might be like, say, running out of oil and rare earth minerals. I knew what his answer would be in any case. Somebody else raised the ethical dimension issue, saying it might be okay for some people but she wouldn't be happy about her own daughter’s reality being augmented. The reply was that, like it or not, we live in a capitalist world and basically we should be thankful that a benign company like Google is driving these developments rather than someone else. Furthermore, we should embrace change rather than being afraid of it, otherwise we’ll be left behind.

This, we are told, is an augmented version of what it means to be a human. Plenty of people have ethical concerns about this kind of thing, but Google insists that regulations will be in place to prevent abuses. What is interesting, however, is not the technical possibilities, but the metaphysical. It can only be a coincidence that I am currently reading the sci-fi epic Dune at the moment, which is set in the far future and warns – in the book’s most quoted line - that the fall of humanity occurred because:

“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”

There is a further irony that the word augment, which when applied to psychiatry is the term that doctors use when they are talking about using more than one type of psychoactive drug to achieve a desired effect.

So is Google becoming a religion? If it is moving beyond simply engineering the internet to suit human minds and onto engineering human minds to suit the internet then that suggests to me that some kind of paradigm shift is occurring. It can’t be called a cult, like Apple, because Google has no central personality to latch onto – although that doesn't mean that one won’t appear in the near future.

But augmented humanity, with its sole concern of pumping individual egos with products and experiences and information, couldn't really be considered a very effective religion. It’s somewhat different from Joyce’s ideas about what it means to be a human, as expressed through the daily humdrum wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. But then I doubt anyone from the Google generation has any time to struggle through one of his books, which do actually require an attention span of considerably more than thirty seconds. In any case traditional media, as it is disparagingly called, is so 20th century. I mean, who reads books these days?

Stepping outside the Google office and back into the chilly post industrial decrepicity of modern Dublin we were reminded of the dangers of being in an unaugmented state of reality. A binman had accidentally fallen into the back of his truck and a passer-by heard his strangled screams as the hydraulic equipment reduced his thickness to the approximate dimensions of a MacBook Air.

“I’d say there’s a fair few of us thinking about following him in there,” quipped the taxi driver as we drove past the cordoned off truck. “It’s a great way to provide new jobs,” he added, proving that gallows humour, indeed, is probably the only resource that really isn't in short supply.

And we’re going to need plenty of that on the road ahead.

There's more on Augmented Humanity, digital souls and eVangelism here.





23 comments:

  1. Dublin is far from collapsing.firstly The Docks were Google HQ is located is a hive of activity and your comments of buildings lying empty in this area is wrong. The docklands has a vacancy rate of 3% a far cry from your description. second We Irish are very proud of our capital which has beared the brunt of the economic situation and has bounced back to become the 8 best city in work to do business,11th best city with way of life and 1st for openness.

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    1. Being a good place to do business depends on the corporate tax rate (which is very low in Ireland), 'business friendly' regulations and the fact that people speak English. Having over 1,000 pubs in the city centre also helps.

      3% vacancy rate? Where did you get that from. The figure I have heard most cited is 22%.

      And a hive of activity? Are we talking about the same place? I saw hardly anyone walking the streets around there and nearly every office building was vacant.

      Don't get me wrong, I love Dublin and you have every reason to be proud. But saying the place is 'thriving' is astonishing. Are you saying that every taxi driver I spoke to was somehow mistaken?

      But take heart - Dublin is ahead of the curve in this game. Plenty more places will look like it soon enough but they won't have the great architecture and friendly people.

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    2. Whilst i accept that being a good place to do business has a lot to do with Corporate taxation, your 22% Vacancy rate is off by roughly 18%.

      I actually work in Commercial Real estate for one of Dublins Largest Agencies and as off today is roughly 4-5% Vacancy. More Large office space is needed to be built such is the need by several Hi tech companies wanting to locate in the city.
      Dublins docklands is now home to 25000 residents and in excess of 60000 workers alone.

      1000 Pubs certainly does help and taxi drivers are notorious for hyping any bad situation. their extremely cynical but we love them

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  2. I've seen this new reality developing already with my friends (younger under 30 crowd). When they're not in front of their computer using Facebook, they're sitting there with the smart phone checking their FB page every thirty seconds. You try to talk to them and you get nods and occasional utterances out of them, but not much more than that. It is better to reach them through a text message instead of speaking to them in person.

    When I was in the Himalayas doing a semi-retreat with no immediate access to the net (to say nothing of only having five or six hours of electricity during the evening), I found I had greater concentration. I could sit and read classical Chinese texts for hours upon hours without feeling weary. Then on my return to the online world I lost it.

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    1. Jeffrey - I have a 27 year old friend who got rid of his phone a few months ago. He's also gone 'paleo' with what he eats. He claims he feels much better. It could be a trend.

      My own experience of giving up the internet for a couple of weeks earlier this year in Greece was similarly refreshing. I read quite a lot and my mind felt a lot freer than normal.

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  3. Ah, me.... So glad that I'm somewhat past the allotted three score and ten.

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    1. Yes, but for those of us left ...

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    2. Yeah, well... Sorry about that, Jason - truly.

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  4. If you or any of your readers are interested I've blogged about this topic a couple of times.

    http://emtmusings.blogspot.com/2011/04/cyborg-anthropology-and-cyberutopians.html

    and

    http://emtmusings.blogspot.com/2011/08/revolutionary-act.html

    "Revolutionary Act" was what I wrote just before deleting my facebook account august of 2011.

    I only plug those two blogs because there is a lot of meat on this bone. Great blog by the way. The skill you have developed which allows you to be in both worlds is amazing! I wish I could do it, but I have no tolerance for corporate generated bureaucratic BS. It drives me to the point of needing a fukitol frankenchemical lobotomy. I can look at it logically and understand it, but I can't deal with it...it's my weakness I suppose. I'm trying my damn hardest to turn it into a strength by engaging with the natural world. I could go on but I should probably just go on over to my blog with it so as not to write a blog in your comment section. I could do that by the way.

    At any rate, thank you for reporting on the madness. It really does help me stay the course out here Palookaville (as WHD refers to my locality). It's easy to second guess yourself when you have the second child on the way and no health insurance or "job." Fortunately my wife seems to have the ability to get money with her gypsy magic. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog.

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    1. Hi Lucid - thanks for those links - you have explained it all beautifully - anyone reading this should read them too.

      As for the corporate thing ... well, I have already dropped out not once, but twice in the past. Five years ago I was basically an olive farmer in a poor mountain region of Spain. The digital world fell away from me and it was bliss. Unfortunately, it didn't work out due to a couple of insurmountable reasons (yes - in another post I'm going to have to address the tricky question of how 'on board' one's other half is with the idea of voluntary collapse and how relationships could survive it).

      So I found myself back in the system with a vengeance. I take a somewhat philosophical view. There are a lot of things to be learned in the business world if one is able to ignore the hubris. I'm thinking specifically of systems theory. Unfortunately, my job also demands that I am an expert on social media, so I have to further distance my work self from my real self. Although to a nerd like myself, social media can be somewhat fascinating.

      Good luck with your wife's gypsy magic - I could use some myself.

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  5. The augmentation thing or whatever that is sounds horrible, a key ingredient in turning the world into a dystopian nightmare.

    But just read the two blog posts Luciddreams linked to. He explained it much better than I could.

    I used to be more like Jason, I had a regular corporate job but kept up with the doomsterish take on thing (which has turned out to be surprisingly accurate over the years). After getting laid off, I'm more like Luciddreams, I don't think I would last long if I got back into the corporate world.

    Its really starting to look like a race to see if peak oil can cause political and economic collapse before technology advances to the point where people are monitored every second of their lives, or to the point that so much pollution is generated that the planet heats up too much to sustain much in the way of animal life.

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    1. Ed - yes, it is pure madness. You might be encouraged to hear that everyone else I was with thought the same thing - so it's not just the usual suspects like myself thinking so.

      In any case I think it will be a damp squib. There just won't be the immense resources and energy needed available to make such a concept real. At least not for long. And any poor sap who goes for it is likely to find themselves going stark raving crazy - our brains just are not evolved in the 'right' way to deal with this kind of stuff. In that way, when the plug gets pulled, there will be a lot of clueless aliens wandering around wondering what happened ... and they won't have many survival skills either.

      Anyway, regarding the job - it's not really a corporate one. It's a small/medium sized family owned affair with a broadly flat management level - nothing like the corporate structure you might be imagining.

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  6. Do those goggles with a 'They live' setting?

    I'm avoiding the south side as best I can.

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  7. I've been keeping one foot in the corporate world and another in the homesteading world for a couple of years now. My corporate work is self-employed IT consulting and contracting. I try to spend each day doing about 50/50 domestic economy work (mainly physical) and sitting-in-front-of-a-computer-typing-stuff work. I much prefer the homestead, for all the obvious reasons. The last couple of weeks, with the gardening slowing down, I took on a much bigger IT project, and have been working crazy full-time+ hours. At the end of the day my mind is just ringing/buzzing and my brain feels like its convulsing. I think I can handle the general corporate BS (the project I'm working on is implementing IT systems for upcoming US healthcare reform and it's got crash and burn written all over it); but I don't think my mind can straddle the two worlds for too much longer. One path is taking me into a fairly practical relationship with the natural world and the present moment, and the other is taking me into a world of bright screens, concepts and thought overload. I like a bit of thinking as much as the next person, but the older I get the more I sense that focused, logical thinking should be a passtime, not a permanent way of life.

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    1. That very much chimes with me, Mark. Last time I 'dropped out' and inevitably came up short of cash I ended up working on a building site for about six months as a labourer. Nice work with friendly guys, but the pay was awful. Far better IMO to work in something highly specialised that pays a lot more - that way you can save up and pay off debts faster.

      Still, the one thing that frightened me when I tried to go self sufficient about seven years ago was the sheer amount of stuff you need to learn if you want to have food, clean water, safe disposal of waste, some electricity etc. Those were some hard lessons.

      By contrast, figuring out how to increase company profits by honing its monetized social media marketing strategy won't count for much when the time comes that you're trying to feed your family off a one acre plot of dry land.

      Anyway I have plenty of plans in the pipeline, and they are well under way - but I can't spill the beans just yet :-)

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  8. Wonderful article as always, Jason!
    I am slightly older than you, but I feel so much older and out of touch than so many people. No FB page, no 'smartphone' etc.
    However, on the positive side, I am finally starting not to care about this situation, as I see so many negatives wrt so much of the tech and social media out there!
    I hope you are doing great my friend,
    Devin

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    1. Thanks Devin! You're doing the right thing, in my opinion. At the moment, I have to be very wired into this system, but at some point I won't be.

      smart tech=dumb users

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  9. PS -I will raise a toast to Yeats, Joyce and Wilde with anyone that cares to!

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  10. Just posted this on Luciddreams' blog, but I thought it might work here too:

    Luciddreams:

    I've been enjoying your blog for some time now since discovering it via Jason's blog. You seem like a sane man in a mad world. And you've got a great way with words. In addition to the present post, I really enjoyed (is that the right word?) your blog on humans becoming cyborgs. As for the present post, frankly, I'm amazed that you had a Facebook account to begin with and that you had to think for more than one second about deleting the account. FB exists online to datamine the f*ck out of you and the capital behind it is all right-wing evil f*ck capital. And you'd better believe that they'll play ball with Homeland Security as soon as Homeland Security starts asking them just who knows who. And then, of course, there are the aspects you mention: social networking is anything but social. Were we humans really born to sit on our asses all day long pecking like idiotic chickens into some keyboards and staring like lobotomized cows at digital images on a screen? Some may think that's a good life, but not me. I say F*CK THAT! I'm half angel and half animal. I have hair on by balls, my chest and a lot of other places. I like the feeling of dirt between my toes. I like to make love with real women. I like to camp alone in the woods and look at the sky. Let me make one thing clear: I have no FB account and never will. I have never and will never tweet. What, am I some kind of little bird? As for phones, I want mine to be as dumb as possible, and I'm thinking of giving them the heave as soon as I can.

    In reading your post, I cannot help but think you live in the wrong country. First, the sums you pay for connectivity are outrageous. My monthly phone and internet bill runs me less than US$100 a month and I could bring it down further if I wanted. And no employer tells me what phone I have to use. The only thing I really need is email, and I'm working on keeping that to a bare minimum. The numbers you quote for phones, plans and internet just remind me of how badly Americans get reamed by their government, I mean, corporatocracy.

    I know you're in the process of freeing yourself. May I suggest investigating some other country? There are plenty of places where you do not have to feel like a criminal for not participating in their digital rodeos and commercial extravaganzas.

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    1. No probs, Mr Anon. I'd second the 'other country' investigation. There really are quite a lot of other places where you can live a fruitful life without being part of the mainstream.

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  11. Again thanks, Jason, for writing about the places you travel to, and especially telling us about the conversations you have with local people. I learn a lot more when I see their homes through their eyes than from anything those in power wish to convey about the place.

    I got what I thought I wanted - a research job in a large multinational company - almost thirty years ago and worked there eight years. By then I had realized it was either change my values enough to keep working there, or quit if I wanted to live my values. I chose the latter, made easier because my husband was working as a mechanic at our local water utility and earning decent pay in a union job. Soon enough it became my job to save us enough money that he could quit before he was fifty. I did and he did, but that was over ten years ago. The conditions under which we could save sufficient money no longer exist. Fortunately the skills we've both developed have value in a declining world, even if our savings and pensions lose value.

    I'm susceptible to the lure of the tech but luckily our limited income, and my observation that time in front of the computer destabilizes my mind, both keep my tech habit to a minimum. I try to limit computer use to two or three days a week and just a few hours each day I'm online. This isn't good for my blog - I have a lot more I want to say than what I post - but it's better in every other way that counts. Neither my husband nor I have any type of cell phone, and our only computer is a desktop. We neither need nor want to be accessible all the time, and I like that I can go for a walk and not be able to be found easily if I don't want to be. I do have a Facebook account but don't post much to it; it's more a way to get bits of info from far-away relatives and friends than anything else. I could delete it and not miss it, and I'll consider that a personal challenge to do so.

    I too have noticed how difficult it is to have a conversation with people who are paying a lot more attention to their cell phone than they are to me. Or paying attention to the TV more than the people around them. I myself get my attention sucked to a TV whenever it is on and have watched with dismay how TV screens have multiplied and spread like malignant cancer cells into waiting rooms, eateries, and the like. If this level of attachment to electronics is an addiction, and I think it is, it's one that has so many people in its grip that it's become normality, and more or less addiction free people, as I try to be, are the abnormal and possibly dangerous folks. I wish I knew an effective way to counter the addiction.

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    1. Hi Claire. It's funny how tech has become an addiction for so many people. I too have a Facebook account, although I really limit my usage these days, and I do find it quite useful for keeping in touch with my (real) friends, who are strung out across Europe and beyond. I did close it down a couple of years ago and spent a few months without it - but then I was ordered to reopen it because I was unemployed at the time and the government said they would stop my money unless I could demonstrate I was using social media.

      You're right about the screens spreading like cancer cells. At one of the meetings I attended in Dublin the phrase 'screen saturation' was brought up - meaning that people are now looking at a screen every waking moment, and sometimes two at once (people watching TV and using their iPads and phones at the same time). I wonder what effect this will have on their cerebral cortexes?

      Anyway, it's good to know you are reading my blog - sometimes I wonder 'why bother?' - but I'll keep writing it as long as I have readers.

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I welcome comments that are relevant to the post and add to the debate about our current and future predicament. I'll try to reply to them all as time permits. You can post anonymously but I'm less likely to reply.